Pakistan’s Economic Turmoil Threatens China’s Ambitions

The balance-of-payments crisis and likely IMF talks could undermine Beijing’s investments.

Chinese engineers work on the bridge and friendship tunnel connected to the  Karakoram highway in Pakistan on June 30, 2015.
Chinese engineers work on the bridge and friendship tunnel connected to the Karakoram highway in Pakistan on June 30, 2015. Mian Khursheed/Washington Post/Getty Images

“There’s no rationale for IMF tax dollars—and associated with that, American dollars that are part of the IMF funding—for those to go to bail out Chinese bondholders or China itself” warned U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about a potential IMF bailout of Pakistan, which Islamabad has contemplated requesting as it stares down another balance of payments crisis. Pompeo’s brash remarks on July 30 captured the concerns of Americans across the political spectrum about China’s increasingly assertive behavior throughout Asia. They also reflected the United States’ exhaustion with Pakistan.

As Pakistan’s new government, led by legendary cricketer-turned-rookie Prime Minister Imran Khan, is seated on Saturday, the first items on its docket will not reflect Washington’s priorities in the region—stabilizing Afghanistan, restraining and dismantling the network of proxies maintained by Pakistan’s army, and restraining the rapid expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal—all of which fall primarily under the writ of the country’s powerful army. Rather, Khan and his team must grapple with Pakistan’s third balance of payments crisis in 10 years. And here, Pompeo’s warning misses the broader geopolitical implications of Pakistan returning to the IMF.

China’s surging investment in Pakistan, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is the fastest-moving and largest portion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. CPEC is a 15-year investment program that aims to address energy shortages, build out Pakistan’s transportation network, develop a deep-water port at Gwadar, and eventually support Pakistan’s industrial development as a manufacturing hub within China’s growing sphere of influence. Since CPEC launched in 2013, Chinese firms have finalized $19 billion in investments in Pakistan, a significant injection of capital that has already served to improve the country’s electrical system and stimulate growth.

As with all things related to Pakistan, the response in Washington has been complicated. On one hand, the U.S. government quietly promoted U.S. commercial participation in the venture, including in three large gas-fired power plants constructed by Chinese firms that use state-of-the-art turbines designed, assembled, and tested by General Electric in South Carolina. And U.S. and multilateral observers have assessed many of CPEC’s energy and transportation projects as worthwhile contributions to Pakistan’s peace and stability.

On the other hand, Washington has also been skeptical of China’s role in Pakistan. The close military relationship between China and Pakistan stretches back decades and remains the bedrock of their “all-weather friendship,” as leaders from Beijing and Islamabad have referred to their relationship over the years. CPEC marked a dramatic upgrade in China’s economic position in Pakistan, but the United States’ concerns focus on China’s strategic intentions. First, China and Pakistan have each, over decades, tended to view their relationship as a means of countering India, an increasingly important strategic partner in what the Trump administration refers to as the Indo-Pacific region. Second, Washington is concerned that Beijing is not sufficiently focused on the destabilizing risks posed by Pakistan’s use of militant proxies in the region, particularly toward India and Afghanistan.

As the contours of CPEC started to become clear, two specific components also drew skeptical looks: the potential use of Pakistani military bases to extend the operational range of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, in particular the construction of a new nuclear power complex near Karachi, which Washington views as in violation of China’s commitments as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. China’s counterterrorism record in Pakistan is also suspect. Although China appears to have encouraged Pakistan Army operations into North Waziristan in 2014 out of a desire to crack down on Uighur militants it alleged were present there, Beijing did not appear to take seriously concerns that some militants were forewarned of the operation and relocated beforehand. And although China did support subjecting Pakistan to enhanced monitoring in the Financial Action Task Force—an international group founded by the G-7 to combat money laundering—earlier this year, it continues to use its status as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to block sanctions against Pakistan-based terrorists.

It is also clear that Pakistan views China as a foil to U.S. pressure. Indeed, China’s investment has only ramped up as Pakistan has flouted Washington’s core concerns related to its militant proxies and nuclear weapons program. When U.S. President Donald Trump started his new year with a tweet denouncing Pakistan’s “lies & deceit” and subsequently ordered the cancellation of U.S. security assistance, Pakistan’s then-prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, took the stage at the World Economic Forum to highlight all the good things that would come from Chinese investment, even as “cooperation with U.S. companies continues on a secondary level.”

With Chinese intentions already suspect in Washington, it is no wonder that, last week, 18 U.S. senators sent Pompeo and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin a letter expressing concern about China’s “debt trap diplomacy.” The fear, highlighted in a Center for Global Development study, is that China is using its growing economic strength coercively to drive weaker states into its strategic orbit.

But there is little evidence that the current crisis in Pakistan was spurred by its debt obligations to China. Chinese and Pakistani officials have claimed that the bulk of the borrowing related to CPEC was structured with long-term schedules for repayment (20 to 30 years) and a five-year grace period built in. While these deals do not reflect the full extent of Pakistan’s debt to China, scapegoating China for Pakistan’s current economic problems is wrong.

Instead, the latest crisis was caused by the same set of factors that spurred previous ones: serial fiscal irresponsibility by successive civilian and military governments; persistent overvaluation of the rupee, which is a drain on foreign reserves; growing trade deficits caused in part by declining export competitiveness and in part by Pakistan’s dependence on fuel imports; and a narrow tax base that habitually excludes most of Pakistan’s governing elite. Meanwhile, persistent electricity shortages, an unpredictable regulatory and legal system, and investor perceptions that Pakistan is too high of a security risk sap competitiveness. In its constant state of economic deterioration, Pakistan has repeatedly sought support from the IMF; it has been subject to 21 IMF programs over the last seven decades and it failed to complete 18 of them.

The situation does not have to be this bad. During his victory remarks on July 26, Khan oriented his government’s agenda around human development, saying that “no country can prosper when there is a small island of rich people, and a sea of poor.” He’s right. After a huge population boom, 64 percent of Pakistanis are under the age of 29. To keep up with the growth, Pakistan’s economy must deliver an estimated 1 million jobs each year for the next 30 years. That requires an estimated GDP growth rate of at least 7 percent per year. Last year, Pakistan grew at 5.7 percent, its best year in over a decade. Even with China’s stimulus, in other words, Pakistan has been unable to grow enough to provide jobs for new workers or make progress alleviating poverty.

The new government’s finance minister designee, a seasoned business executive named Asad Umar, has in the days since the election openly deliberated about how the government should address the economic crisis. His preference seems to be finding an easy way out—a quick injection of additional foreign exchange from China, which has already extended around $4 billion in loans to the State Bank of Pakistan over the last year, or Saudi Arabia, which recently pushed for a $4 billion credit facility through the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank to support oil purchases. These kind of capital injections buy time, but they don’t represent a solution to what ails Pakistan. Ultimately, Pakistan will have to return to what Umar has said is the “fallback option”—the IMF.

A Pakistani stock broker monitors share prices during a trading session at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi on Aug. 16. Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Some in Pakistan have speculated that China may oppose an IMF program out of concerns that it would compel China to release the financing terms of many CPEC projects. But outside of situations where external debt restructuring is required, it would be exceedingly unusual for the IMF to make such a demand. Instead, the IMF would likely require confidential data on debt payment schedules and other financial information necessary to understand Pakistan’s full balance of payments situation. Such an exchange of data is routine across IMF programs, because as a lending institution the IMF demands assurance that it will be repaid. It seems unlikely that China would oppose a new IMF program for Pakistan on those grounds.

That does not mean that China should not be worried. Pakistan’s recent election and the country’s potential return to the IMF will create three obstacles to China’s ventures in Pakistan: domestic political demands for anti-corruption investigations into the previous government; IMF restrictions on Pakistan’s ability to authorize new sovereign guarantees, which are typically critical to underwriting large projects; and IMF fiscal austerity requirements, particularly related to Pakistan’s derelict state-owned enterprises.

Anti-corruption and accountability investigations could come quickly. Khan focused his campaign on allegations that the previous government had made crooked bargains with China and other countries. The concern comes from the opaque terms of many of the public infrastructure projects that the previous government advanced, including CPEC projects. Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, and his team had argued that the standard processes were too slow and unwieldy. Rather than reform and modernize that system, though, they chose to pursue executive agreements aimed at resolving Pakistan’s energy crisis, improving urban transportation, and building new highways more quickly. Their sense of urgency was understandable, but their refusal to disclose basic contractual details rightly stoked worry. Public concern was heightened when Sharif’s foreign properties were revealed in the Panama Papers leak. The combination of factors fed tension between Sharif and the Army, and ultimately contributed to his disqualification from office.

In line with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile anti-corruption drive, Chinese officials have pledged to make CPEC a “clean corridor.” China has already shown sensitivity to allegations of public corruption in CPEC projects. In December 2017, Beijing paused three road projects due to allegations that the Pakistani construction firm involved in the projects, which was a state-owned entity, had corrupt business dealings. But the exposure of additional details about CPEC projects may focus public attention on the dependence of many of the projects on Chinese imports, which local business groups allege are flooding the market and crowding out local firms. While China might not fear corruption investigations, in other words, it may well loathe any media attention that such investigations drum up.

IMF restrictions on Pakistan’s ability to originate new sovereign guarantees are likely to be a second source of trouble. Sovereign guarantees are demanded by lenders facing heightened economic, security, or political risks in a project that serves a public good or has a government entity as a counterparty. A sovereign guarantee is a contingent liability; that is, it is calculated as part of a country’s overall debt picture but does not involve direct debt service payments. Most projects eligible for a sovereign guarantee are designed to ensure that project costs can be covered by tariffs, tolls, or other revenue collection schemes. But in Pakistan, such cost-recovery plans for state infrastructure projects have a sketchy record. It makes sense, then, that the IMF would pursue one of its standard methods for ensuring discipline in countries that get loans: restricting the promulgation of new sovereign guarantees.

That is bad news for China, which has required sovereign guarantees to backstop its Belt and Road Initiative investments throughout Asia, including in Pakistan and even while demanding that Chinese firms lead most efforts. On its face, this is a questionable, almost predatory, practice. If an IMF program restricts Pakistan from issuing additional sovereign guarantees, it would delay China’s ability to start new projects and achieve its broader ambitions in Pakistan.

The third disruption is likely to come from the IMF’s austerity requirements, and in particular how these requirements affect Pakistan’s state-owned enterprises. Most Pakistani estimates indicate that somewhere in the range of 20 percent of the total cost of CPEC projects come from Pakistan’s budget, though these estimates appear conservative. Although the bulk of China’s investments in Pakistan, including electricity projects and investments related to Gwadar Port, involve Chinese banks financing construction by Chinese firms, the transportation projects involve decrepit Pakistani state-owned entities.

Consider, for example, the efforts to better link China and Pakistan via new highways and railways. For now, only a narrow road, known as the Karakoram highway, winds through the Hindu Kush mountains on its way between Pakistan with Xinjiang across the highest-altitude border crossing in the world. Pakistani and Chinese authorities have discussed a new rail line, known as the ML-1, to make direct transit commercially viable. The hypothetical ML-1 would involve an $8 billion loan to Pakistan Railways, Pakistan’s decrepit national champion. Under an IMF program, not only would Pakistan be prevented from issuing a sovereign guarantee to back such a loan, but Pakistan Railways would most likely be subject to restructuring or privatization as well. The IMF program would therefore be a direct impediment to China’s ambition for a land corridor through the Hindu Kush.

Although China has not caused Pakistan’s current economic turmoil, it seems likely that CPEC could spur the next crisis unless conditions change. According to a 2017 IMF assessment, debt service obligations to the Chinese state, banks, and firms are projected to grow gradually, peaking in 2025 at between about $3.4 billion and $4.5 billion. These estimates likely undervalue the full repayment obligations Pakistan will have under CPEC, as they do not seem to include tariffs for power generated by Chinese firms, toll fees for Chinese built roads, or maintenance and operation expenses.

Without reforms to improve Pakistan’s competitiveness, the country could well fall into a debt trap that it can’t escape. That, too, is a matter for Pakistani-Chinese discussion. China, already Pakistan’s largest trading partner, is indeed the primary cause of Pakistan’s growing trade deficit, accounting for 29 percent of imports. Pakistan only exports $1.62 billion in goods to China, less than it exports to either the European Union or the United States.

Khan’s ascent to the prime minister’s office represents a historic moment to improve governance, expand economic opportunities, alleviate poverty, strengthen civilian institutions, and improve relations with Pakistan’s neighbors. Progress on any of these agendas will be hard fought. Despite the risks, the infrastructure installed under CPEC could be a boon to these goals.

But CPEC’s excesses—including its opaque terms, its reliance on sovereign guarantees, and the long-term debt burden these projects could impose on Pakistan—actually put the whole Chinese project at risk. The discipline imposed by an IMF loan could help Pakistan avoid these risks and give cover to an effort on the part of the new government to negotiate a better deal with China, on terms more favorable to Pakistan. Watching China’s behavior toward Pakistan will be a revealing test of Beijing’s global intent through the Belt and Road Initiative. If it wants Pakistan to succeed, it will purchase more Pakistani goods, reduce the trade imbalance, and work with the government and international institutions like the IMF to promote meaningful reform. If its intention is somehow to leverage Pakistan to acquire assets or to build a new military platform, it could continue walking Pakistan right into a debt trap.

James Schwemlein is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and was a senior advisor to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State.

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