By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan, facing a crisis in relations with the United States, appears to be seeking more support from powerful ally China.
Pakistani officials have been heaping praise on China since its public security minister arrived here on Monday for high-level talks as Washington piles pressure on Islamabad to cut ties with a militant group blamed for attacks on U.S. targets.
"We are true friends and we count on each other," Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said in comments broadcast on television networks after talks with Meng Jianzhu on Tuesday.
"Thank you once again...for (the) supportive statement in favor of Pakistan's sovereignty and integrity."
Washington accuses Pakistan's powerful ISI spy agency of directly backing the Afghan Taliban-allied Haqqani network and of providing support for the September 13 attack on the U.S. Kabul mission.
Pakistan furiously rejected the allegations and warned the United States that it risked losing an ally if it kept publicly criticizing Pakistan over the militant groups.
Making the point that Pakistan has other friends, President Asif Ali Zardari said in a statement: "In these peculiar circumstances when the country was grappling with many challenges simultaneously, Chinese assistance has been most welcome in stabilizing the situation."
The military, Pakistan's most powerful institution, also said it appreciated its giant Asian neighbor's support. Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani thanked Meng for China's "unwavering support."
"They (the Pakistanis) are trying to use their diplomatic options as much as possible to defuse pressure on them. They hope China will help them in this crisis," said security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
China and Pakistan call each other "all-weather friends" and their close ties have been underpinned by long-standing wariness of their common neighbor, India, and a desire to hedge against U.S. influence across the region.
After the United States killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, China called the event a "progressive development" but also defended the Pakistani government, which has been criticized in the U.S. for failing to find bin Laden, if not harboring him.
Now Pakistan is turning to China again as it engages in the harshest war of words with Washington since it joined the U.S. "war on terror" after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan to attack the Haqqani network, which it believes is based in North Waziristan near the Afghan border. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the group, says it is no longer based in Pakistan and feels safe operating in Afghanistan.
Analysts say Pakistan sees the Haqqanis as a counterweight to the growing influence of rival India in Afghanistan and is highly unlikely to go after the group.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Pakistan has made "important contributions in the international fight against terrorism."
"China understands and supports Pakistan's formulating and implementing its counter terrorism strategy based on its national conditions," said Hong.
The United States seems frustrated at its inability to influence Pakistani policy on militants.
In a meeting with her Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi at the United Nations on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Beijing to open a dialogue with Washington on Pakistan.
"We have stated this before, but there's clearly an urgency given recent developments and also given the close relationship that exists between Pakistan and China," a State Department official said in a briefing to reporters.
Pakistan appears to have been secretly lobbying in recent months for a bilateral defense pact with China, though officials in Beijing say there is little hope for an immediate breakthrough, Pakistan Express Tribune reported.
A senior Pakistani government official called the report speculative but said Islamabad has such strong defense ties with China that no formal pact was needed.
During Meng's visit, the two sides signed $250 million in economic and technical agreements, Zardari's office said.
China is a major supplier of military hardware to Pakistan and also a major investor in areas such as telecommunications, ports and infrastructure.
(Additional reporting by Qasim Nauman in Islamabad and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)