Beijing not saddling Pakistan with debt

  •  Quite to the contrary, actually!

Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yi was in Pakistan for a three-day visit in the first high-level meeting between the iron brothers since Imran Khan took oath of office as prime minister. Beijing has pledged $57 billion in loan to Pakistan as part of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s mega project, the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), deepening ties at a time when Islamabad’s economic condition at macro and micro is level not stable.

The Chinese foreign minister’s visit came at the heels of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accompanied by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and newly appointed advisor to the US government on Afghanistan, anti-Pakistan Zalmay Khalilzad. Démarche against Pakistan way before Mike Pompeo’s visit comprised US president Donald Trump’s castigation of the erstwhile most allied non-Nato ally—Pakistan—via his 2017 South Asia Strategic Review. Trump’s new-year 2018 Tweet chastised Pakistan, followed by the cessation of International Military Education and Training (IMET) program for Pakistan. Mike Pompeo, the former Director of US intelligence agency CIA, had dealt the final blow prior to stepping foot in Islamabad by terminating aid as well as stopping Coalition Support Fund (CSF). In saving grace, Pompeo did recommend resetting Pak-US ties but the US embassy in Islamabad took the wind out of Pompeo’s Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s sails by US demand of Pakistan taking “sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace and stability in the region.”

To rub salt in the wound, Pompeo was joined by US Secretary Defence James Mattis, who held the first 2+2 dialogue between USA and India with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman completing the quartet. Mattis described the historic meeting as a “defining moment” and the consultations between the world’s two largest democracies as “highly successful.”

In sharp contrast to the US Secretary of State’s brief four hour Islamabad yatra, Chinese top diplomat, Wáng Yì, who is also State Councilor since March 2018, gave three days of his precious time to China’s all weather friend and strategic partner Pakistan.

There was complete consensus on the future trajectory of CPEC between Pakistan and China. The two sides agreed to work together towards implementation of the ongoing projects and agreed to expand CPEC

As US State Department echoed Mattis, describing “US-India relationship and an indication of the deepening strategic partnership between the United States and India and India’s emergence as a global power and net security provider in the region.” Reportedly BRI and China’s role in the Pacific Ocean also came under discussion at the US-India 2+2 moot. Both the US and its new strategic partner India have minced no words in expressing grave concerns regarding BRI. Unfortunately, their reservations are not based on logic but are guided by their fears of China overtaking the US as the leading economic power of the world. India perceives China as an economic rival with whom it has had a major conflict in 1962 and numerous standoffs emanating from border issues.

President Xi Jinping has clearly stated that it is not interested in overtaking the US as the global economic giant of the world and believes it will take decades before every Chinese is raised above the poverty level; his first priority. Both the US and India have been invited to join BRI or merge their own belt and road initiatives—linking the entire world through trade and commerce—with development replacing poverty. Alas, its ingrained biases keep Indo-US collusion away. India is founder member of BRICS, is a partner in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), was afforded entry to the prestigious Shanghai Cooperation Organisation along with Pakistan last year, yet it opts for following US diktat vis-à-vis antagonism towards CPEC and BRI.

CPEC rings alarm bells in New Delhi because it passes through Pakistan, has given China access to the strategically located deep sea Port of Gawadar and is projected as a harbinger of economic prosperity to Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had formally objected to CPEC with the flimsy plea that it passes through the disputed territory of Kashmir. His protestation was nullified by President Xi Jinping, who made it clear that CPEC is a development project and not a strategic one. If India joined the board of CPEC and BRI, it would not only gain tremendous benefits but also have a say in its planning and execution but it tends to remain hostile to the mega projects following the adage of “Cutting off the nose to spite the face.”

Reportedly, both the US and India would like to see BRI and CPEC fail. Thus the Financial Times, apparently under influence of BRI and CPEC’s detractors, in its 9 September 2018 issue, in a story titled ‘Pakistan rethinks its role in Xi’s Belt and Road plan’, concluded that “Islamabad seeks to review deals at heart of China’s global infrastructure drive.”

The authors of the story attributed the words to Abdul Razak Dawood, advisor to PM on commerce, in an interview to Financial Times. Subsequently the story was refuted with Razak Dawood stating that he had been quoted out of context.

Financial Times had claimed that “Pakistan plans to review or renegotiate agreements reached under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, joining a growing list of countries questioning the terms of their involvement in Beijing’s showpiece infrastructure investment plan. Pakistani ministers and advisers say the country’s new government will review BRI investments and renegotiate a trade agreement signed more than a decade ago that it says unfairly benefits Chinese companies.”

During his visit to Islamabad, the Chinese foreign minister was accorded high protocol as was his due. He conveyed the message of goodwill and support from the Chinese leadership for the new government of Pakistan. Mr Wáng Yi held delegation level talks with his Pakistani counterpart followed by a joint press conference. He also called on the president, prime minister, speaker national assembly and chief of army staff. State Councilor Wáng Yi was a special guest at the oath-taking ceremony of the new president of Pakistan and was the first foreign dignitary to call on him after his inauguration on the same day. The two sides had in-depth exchange of views on all issues of mutual interest. The visit provided an opportunity to the two sides to reaffirm their “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership”.

According to the Pakistani foreign ministry, “During the meetings, Pakistani leadership conveyed that CPEC was a national priority for the government. Pakistan remains committed to the successful implementation of CPEC. There was complete consensus on the future trajectory of CPEC between Pakistan and China. The two sides agreed to work together towards implementation of the ongoing projects and agreed to expand CPEC to new areas of cooperation including socio-economic development; poverty alleviation, anti-corruption, agricultural cooperation and industrial development as per the needs and priorities of the government of Pakistan.”

Indian media, which tried to play up the Financial Times story, denigrating China, Pakistan and CPEC had to eat the humble pie when Wáng Yi reiterated that CPEC has helped to increase economic growth by 1-2 percent and has contributed 70,000 jobs. CPEC has not inflicted a debt burden on Pakistan, rather when these projects get completed and enter into operation, they will unleash huge economic benefits. 22 operational CPEC projects, of which nine have been completed, have triggered investment worth $19 billion so far. Thus the sour and empty feeling left after Mike Pompeo’s pompous visit to Islamabad was nullified by Wáng’s rich and meaningful visit which left a deep and very positive message to the world in general and to India and US in particular.