Islamabad, Pakistan — Expressing concern about Pakistan’s increasing instability, the visiting Chinese foreign minister told the host nation to overcome political differences to pave the way for economic progress.
China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, was in Pakistan on Saturday for the fourth Pakistan-China Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue held in Islamabad. It was Qin’s maiden visit to the country since becoming Beijing’s top diplomat.
“We sincerely hope the political forces in Pakistan will build consensus, uphold stability and more effectively address domestic and external challenges so it can focus on growing the economy,” Qin said, addressing a press briefing alongside his Pakistani counterpart, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, after the closed-door strategic talks.
Pakistan is facing intense political turmoil since former prime minister Imran Khan was ousted a year ago in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. A lack of consensus between Khan’s party and the 13-party ruling alliance led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif regarding the election schedule has plunged the country into a political and constitutional crisis.
The country also is mired in a crippling financial crisis. To help Pakistan revive a stalled bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund and avoid default, China has provided relief by rolling over debt and parking funds there to boost dangerously low foreign exchange reserves.
Qin said his country will “continue to do our best to support Pakistan’s foreign exchange and financial stability.”
Pakistan’s former envoy to the U.K., U.S. and U.N., Maleeha Lodhi, told VOA her country would have defaulted without China coming to the rescue.
“It was the Chinese decision to roll over even commercial loans to Pakistan that has helped keep Pakistan financially afloat. So, China’s help has been extremely vital to help Pakistan, at least keep its [foreign exchange] reserves,” said Lodhi.
China is also Pakistan’s single biggest lender, though, with the South Asian nation owing one-third of its external debt to Beijing. That debt has skyrocketed since the launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor 10 years ago. Known as CPEC, the multi-billion-dollar infrastructure and development project is part of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative.
By not providing large-scale debt forgiveness to Pakistan, policy expert and former adviser to the Pakistani government Mosharraf Zaidi said Beijing is telling Pakistan to manage its affairs better.
“[The] Chinese, I think, will keep insisting that we will not let you fail completely, but we will not support mismanagement and misgovernance, which is really what Pakistan over the last year-and-a-half in particular has done,” Zaidi told VOA.
Both foreign ministers rejected the perception that Pakistan is a victim of “debt-trap diplomacy” and the assertions that China targets struggling economies through unsustainable loans to pursue its geo-strategic goals.
“There is no basis whatsoever in the so-called debt sustainability, debt trap … concerns that are propagated. Chinese investment and financial support … is in keeping with the traditions of our unique, time-tested friendship” Bhutto Zardari told journalists.
“For those who make false suggestions about debt trap,” Qin said in a veiled reference to Washington’s criticism of China’s investment pattern, “I suggest that you ask those people, ‘what have they done for the national development and well-being of the Pakistani people?'”
The U.S. is Pakistan’s biggest export market, followed by China.
Along with Pakistan’s economic and political instability, the safety of its citizens is a major concern for China.
Despite multi-layered security guarding Chinese projects in Pakistan, including a special military unit, Chinese workers have faced lethal attacks from militant groups that oppose the Pakistani state or see Chinese projects as an extension of what they regard as the state’s encroachment of their resources.
Qin said his Pakistani counterpart had shared “the meticulous arrangements by Pakistan to protect China’s citizens, institutions and projects in Pakistan. Our two sides agreed to hunt down and bring to justice the perpetrators of terrorist attacks targeting Chinese.”
Last November, a Pakistani counterterrorism court gave death sentences to two men accused of killing 13 people, including nine Chinese engineers working on a hydropower project, in a suicide attack in July 2021.
During his brief stay in Pakistan, China’s top diplomat took part in trilateral talks with his Pakistani and Afghan counterparts. The Afghan Taliban’s interim foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, who faces travel restrictions by the United Nations, was granted a waiver to come to Islamabad.
Bhutto Zardari noted that for Pakistan, the core issue with Afghanistan is terrorism, which he called a “red line.”
Pakistan blames Kabul for not reining in terrorists present on its soil who have been mounting near-daily attacks on Pakistani security personnel.
As China deepens its interests in Afghanistan, Qin said before the trilateral talks, he hoped that “Pakistan and Afghanistan will bear in mind the larger picture and try to work out the issues between them through dialogue and consultation.”
Qin’s visit to Pakistan comes on the heels of the Pakistani army chief’s visit to Beijing just over a week ago and a bilateral political consultation there in March. The two heads of state met in China last November.
A recent Washington Post report on U.S. intelligence leaks revealed Pakistani officials sought to distance the country from the U.S. on key issues to avoid hurting its relationship with China.
Standing with the Pakistani foreign minister, China’s top diplomat took swipes at the U.S., at one point saying Beijing and Islamabad will keep working together to “oppose the cold war mentality, zero-sum game.”
On the challenges of balancing relations with two competing global powers, former Pakistani envoy Lodhi told VOA, “Pakistan has made it clear it will not be part of any anti-China coalition that the United States is trying its best to mobilize across the world.”
In policy expert Zaidi’s opinion, however, Islamabad’s compulsion is to maintain strategic ties with China and strengthen its weak relationship with the U.S. because Pakistan is “too big to choose a side, but it’s also too small to choose a side successfully.”
Source: Voice of America News