Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan is likely to make his first official visit to China in November and will likely discuss the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with the Chinese leadership.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said CPEC is a game changer for Islamabad and the country is in talks with the Chinese on how to focus on areas that are important to the new government. “Hopefully next month in November the prime minister would be making his first official visit to China to discuss this further,” Qureshi told a Washington audience when he was asked about reports of changes in the ambitious CPEC projects.
Khan had said last month that he will be visiting China to discuss Beijing’s progress in all areas, particularly in the railways sector. “China focused on the uplift of the poorest of its poor and has made astounding progress over the past few decades in the railways sector. The CPEC main line-1 project will provide high speed trains between Karachi and Peshawar,” Khan was quoted as saying by The Express Tribune.
Singing a different tune
However, the new government under Khan has been striking a discordant note about its stance on CPEC and China. Khan in the past had criticised former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for the lack of transparency and corruption in the CPEC projects.
After coming to power, he pledged to complete the CPEC project and said that the ‘all-weather’ friendship with China was a cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. During Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to Pakistan, Khan reiterated that the government is committed to the implementation of the CPEC, his office said in a statement.
Just hours after Chinese foreign minister concluded his visit to Islamabad, an advisor in the Khan government was reported as saying that the country’s deals with China were “unfair” because the agreements to do with CPEC “unfairly benefit Chinese companies”. “The Khan government will review its role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and renegotiate a trade agreement signed over a decade ago,” Financial Times quoted Pakistani officials as saying.
“The previous government did a bad job negotiating with China on CPEC – they didn’t do their homework correctly and didn’t negotiate correctly so they gave away a lot,” Abdul Razak Dawood, Khan’s advisor on commerce, textile, industry and production, and investment was quoted as saying in the report.
Both countries were quick to refute the report. The Chinese foreign ministry said that the “Pakistan-China relations are unbreakable and Pakistani government’s commitment to CPEC is unwavering”. In Islamabad, the Pakistan Foreign Office said that during meetings with Wang, Pakistani leadership conveyed that the CPEC was a national priority for the government and “Pakistan remains committed to the successful implementation of CPEC.”
This month, Islamabad cut the size of the biggest Chinese “Silk Road” project in Pakistan by $2 billion, railways minister Sheikh Rasheed announced, citing government concerns about the country’s debt levels. The changes, according to Reuters, are part of Islamabad’s efforts to rethink key BRI projects in Pakistan, where Beijing has pledged about $60 billion in financing but the new government appears to be more cautious about the Chinese investment.
“Pakistan is a poor country that cannot afford huge burden of the loans,” Rasheed told a news conference in Lahore. He said that the government remains committed to the Karachi-Peshawar main line-1 (ML-1) project, but added that he wishes to further reduce the cost to $4.2 billion from $6.2 billion.
“CPEC is like the backbone for Pakistan, but our eyes and ears are open,” Rasheed said.
Where China stands
Meanwhile, China has consistently reaffirmed the all-weather strategic cooperative partnership with Pakistan. Chinese president Xi jinping has said that Beijing places a “high premium” on its relations with Pakistan and told Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa that the two countries were “iron friends”. He also expressed his appreciation for the support and security safeguards provided by Pakistan for the BRI and the CPEC construction.
“As long as high-degree mutual trust and concrete measures are in place, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor construction will succeed and deliver benefits to people of the two countries,” Xi Jinping said.
Wang, during his visit to Islamabad, also said that CPEC helped create more than 70,000 jobs in Pakistan and contributed to the national growth. “We have decided to strive for a greater balance in two-way trade. China will earmark amounts of subsidiaries to encourage imports from Pakistan and will send more tread coalition teams to Pakistan. We will also broaden the market access to Pakistan’s competitive agricultural products,” he added.
Wang also underlined that Pakistan will always be a priority for China in its foreign policy.