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CPEC: Cause or remedy to Pakistan’s debt dilemma?

M Waqas Jan

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New times, Similar woes

Pakistan’s most recent debt and balance of payment crises have come to highlight yet again the continuing fragility of its economic and financial situation. Even despite a considerably improved security situation and a significant rise in its GDP growth rate, Pakistan’s current account deficit over the last fiscal year has neared the $16bn mark reducing its Forex reserves by nearly 40pc. This will likely further exacerbate public debt, which currently stands at a staggering 70% of GDP. Add to that the political upheaval of the current  election season; the past few year’s narrative of Pakistan emerging  as a key developing market stands in all out jeopardy, as investors both at home and abroad watch with increasing trepidation.

This bodes ominously for the widely publicized China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has over the last few years dominated economic discourse within the country. Having become increasingly intertwined within Pakistan’ politico-economic framework, CPEC’s detractors and supporters both at home and abroad have hotly debated whether CPEC itself is the cause, or remedy to much of the country’s economic and financial troubles.

Warnings of an impending Debt trap

For instance, the widening current account deficit over the last few years has been continually attributed to the huge import costs of machinery and related building materials for CPEC projects currently underway. This was highlighted by the government as necessary given their stance that importing such capital goods was essential to the long-term restructuring and development of the country. This was also the reason used to justify the rampant borrowing undertaken by the government. By issuing sovereign bonds and taking on expensive commercial loans, the government in effect borrowed more in its attempt to curtail dwindling Forex reserves; reserves that were, and are still crucially needed to meet the ever widening current account deficit.

In a similar vein, critics both in and outside of Pakistan have pointed out the potential of CPEC turning into a ‘debt trap’ for a structurally and financially weak Pakistan. Parallels are often drawn against the Sri Lankan experience of having China fund and build the Hambantota sea port only to have it included as part of a debt-for-equity swap, when low revenues and high liabilities left it unfeasible for the Sri Lankan government to own and operate it. The massive liabilities being incurred on behalf of CPEC projects are often compared to this example.

This is especially true considering Pakistan’s increasing reliance on both public and private Chinese banks for financing CPEC related projects. This over-reliance on Chinese funding has in fact extended beyond CPEC projects with the Chinese government repeatedly offering small bailouts to the Pakistani government. The most recent one being the $1 billion emergency loan released at the end of June to help cover Pakistan’s unsustainable import bill for the next few months.  Thus as CPEC’s detractors have pointed out, there is certainly a growing dependency on Chinese funds that can in turn be used as leverage against Pakistan on the geo-political front.

Age-old cycles of debt induced poverty

On the other hand, despite criticisms identifying CPEC as a potential threat to Pakistan’s politico-economic autonomy, it is extremely difficult to argue that the Pakistani economy would be any better off without CPEC. Owing to deep seeded politics and decades old economic structural failings, Pakistan has been unable to mount the sort of economic turnaround seen in the other post-colonial yet newly industrialized Nations of Asia.  This is in spite of the comparisons tinged with nostalgic ‘what ifs’, which are often drawn against the economies of the East Asian tigers and even China for that matter.

Yet, there has been little if any effort to emulate the export led growth strategies of the above countries backed by a strong industrial and manufacturing sector. In fact, both exports and manufacturing have instead declined over the last few years, serving as the most glaring examples of the Pakistani economy’s structural failings. Moving beyond short term measures of financing the deficit through loans and bailout programs, expanding the country’s exports is in fact the only viable and sustainable solution to the country’s widening Current Account deficit.

This is in contrast to prevailing policy measures that have continued to relinquish the country’s politico-economic autonomy to its creditors. The only difference being that policy makers, in light of deteriorating relations with the US over the last few years, have preferred to slowly substitute China for the Bretton Woods institutions as its major source of credit. As has been for decades, the economy’s reliance on external funding remains the same even in light of dramatic shifts in the global political economy.

Still, even amidst mounting public debt and new credit lines from Chinese sources, Chinese officials stationed in Islamabad have gone to great lengths to point out that, out of the $19 billion used to finance CPEC projects so far, only 31.6% has comprised of loans to the government in the form of preferential buyer credit. The rest of the financing has been doled out in the form of aid, interest free loans and loans secured by private investors from commercial banks, all of which are mostly outside of Pakistan’s debt servicing obligations. Taking into account both ongoing and completed early harvest projects, the same officials have placed the overall burden of CPEC projects at around 10% of the country’s overall debt servicing obligations. They too point out that the primary factor behind Pakistan’s worsening fiscal and external accounts is more due to its economy’s inherent structural limitations and challenges; the same challenges that have plagued Pakistan and the surrounding region for decades.  They argue that it is overcoming these very limitations and challenges that CPEC as a part of the overall vision of the Belt & Road initiative aims to address over the long run in a holistic, sustainable manner.

Of Grand visions and dreams

Coming back to Pakistan’ gaping debt crisis in relation to CPEC, it is unlikely that debt under CPEC has played a major role in bringing the economy to its present position. Despite being a slave to geo-political tensions, Pakistan’s economy has suffered more from years of mismanagement and structural failings that have moved beyond the security dynamics of the South Asian region.

What CPEC instead does, is offer in concrete terms, a viable chance for the country to prioritize its economy as the basis for its power and influence within the region, in the same way China has done at a global level.  It offers perhaps the only realistic chance for Pakistan to move beyond its Agrarian focus and develop a robust manufacturing sector to help add greater value to its exports. By successfully leveraging the massive investments in energy, transport and communications infrastructure as well as the financial opportunities under corresponding SEZs, Pakistan can use CPEC as an opportunity to break free of its present structural limitations that have so far reinforced the ensuing cycles of debt and poverty.

This however, is only possible if the underlying, decades-old problems of the present debt crisis are correctly identified and remedied in accordance with a sustainable long-term approach. While all of this is unlikely to materialize overnight, policymakers and administrators overseeing CPEC need to re-prioritize the development of long-term sources of revenue, as opposed to the short-term sources of credit that have come to characterize CPEC in day to day politico-economic discourse. If not, then the entire CPEC initiative is reduced to being just another excuse to borrow more funds to keep the economy afloat. This serves neither Pakistani nor Chinese interests in the long run.

Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad. He can be reached at waqas[at]thesvi.org

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Post-UNGA: Kashmir is somewhere between abyss and fear

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Hailed as a hero for calling out New Delhi’s draconian measures in occupied Kashmir, Imran Khan warned the world of a “bloodbath” once India lifts its lockdown of Jammu and Kashmir. He persuaded global leaders to denounce the brutalities and human rights violations unleashed on Kashmiris ever since the disruption of the decades old status quo, which had been granted by the symbolic autonomy of Articles 370 and 35(A) within the Indian constitution. The constitutional coup d état ensures the alienation of Kashmiris in IOK beyond the point of redemption with massive spillover effects across the LOC. Pakistan is home to 4,045,366 self-governed and independent Kashmiris as per the 2017 census, who are desired of more than a political and diplomatic support for their brothers in IOK. India and Pakistan have already fought three wars on the Kashmir issue.

Focusing on the brazen denial of core human values, Imran Khan prognosticated a more radicalized world as the scourge of radicalism finds more fodder in a discriminated society. If climate change is ignored, the clichés of religious affiliation continues and the inherent right of self-determination remains disregarded, violent reaction is inevitable. He said, “we all know that marginalisation leads to radicalization”… “No one did research that before 9-11, the majority of suicide bombers in the world were Tamil Tigers. They were Hindus”, but Hindus rightly escaped the blame since belief and religion has nothing to do with desperation.

Imran Khan talked more like Gandhi than the nation of Gandhi itself. He reminded the world of the reincarnation of the progrom and racial ridden medieval periods when religion and state were inseparable .It has reshaped and now resides more in inter-state relations while negatively stirring regional cooperation and globalization. Already enwrapped in a world of deprivation, the fifth largest population of South Asia is fearfully seen at the brink of a nuclear war with there being very few options left for a seven times smaller nuclear state of Pakistan, which has been already driven to the wall. The speech was well received and touched a chord with many Kashmiris reeling under the unprecedented communications blackout and travel restrictions in place since August 5.

“It felt like there is someone to watch our back. It felt that someone is talking for us, that we are not alone”, was the feeling commonly displayed. Hundreds of affected Kashmiri stakeholders came out of their homes, shouting slogans in support of Imran Khan and calling for the independence of Kashmir despite the movement restrictions and deployment of additional force by India in Srinagar.A fresh charge sheet has also been filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) of India against the chief of Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, (JKLF) Yasin Malik, and other leaders including Asiya Andrabi, and Masarat Alam on October 4, 2019.

Conjuring up his dystopian vision, Prime Minister Modi made no mention of the disputed region of Kashmir in his read-out speech at the UN along the lines of diplomatically bureaucratic explanation. He only ticked the fanciful boxes of development, progress, and world peace, annihilation of terrorism and protection of environment. This speech however, was soon followed by a threat from his own government’s defence minister calling for the liberation of Pakistani Administered Kashmir as the next step in India’s quest for regional dominance.

Moreover, Imran Khan has also expressed his fears in his erstwhile meetings with Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the General Assembly session. Trump has offered mediation, but only if both Pakistan and India agree. A senior US diplomat for South Asia called for a lowering of rhetoric between India and Pakistan, while saying that Washington hoped to see rapid action by India to lift restrictions it has imposed in Kashmir and the release of detainees there. Similarly, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, in his address to the General Assembly on 27 September stated that,;”The Kashmir issue, a dispute left from the past, should be peacefully and properly addressed in accordance with the UN Charter, Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.”

Nonetheless, an arrogant denial by India to the support of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir by Turkey and Malaysia is more of an inept understanding of diplomacy and international commitment. India needs to step out of the skeptical comprehension of the role of the UN that was pronounced by Ms. Vidisha Maitra India’s Permanent Mission to the UN. The sway of diplomatic terms espoused with preconceived historical interpretations could be misguiding for political leaders. Modi needs to keep his ears close to the ground to save his political future. It is an extensional battle for Kashmiris. No concertina wire can blur the contradiction in his approach to the issue, “when they are in India they say it is an internal issue and when they are on the international forums, they consider it a bilateral issue,” said one of the residents of Srinagar. Confusion exacerbates the fear, which consequently becomes a forerunner to terrorism. Same goes for the US whose mediator’s role gets paradoxical by Trump’s close alliance with Modi in his perusal of Asia-Pacific policy. Though, Imran Khan is perpetually using his political and diplomatic influence proactively, to mobilize both the international community and his own people, the anti-India feeling, the pro-militancy sensitivity and the general sense of despair — is stronger than before in Kashmir.

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Kashmir Issue at the UNGA and the Nuclear Discourse

Haris Bilal Malik

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The Kashmir issue has more significance in view of the nuclearization of South Asia as many security experts around the world consider Kashmir a potential ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between India and Pakistan. The revocation of the special constitutional status of Kashmir by the BJP government on August 5, 2019, also referred to as Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019 and the subsequent lockdown in Kashmir has since considerably increased political and diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan. India’s recent moves and actions in Kashmir have once again internationalized the Kashmir dispute. This was evident during the UN General Assembly’s 74th Session, where the Kashmir issue remained a crucial agenda item for several countries.

During this year’s session prominent leaders of the world condemned Indian brutalities in Kashmir. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the international community for failing to pay attention to the Kashmir conflict and called for dialogue to end this dispute. Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said that Kashmir “has been invaded and occupied” by India despite the UN resolution on the issue. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also discussed the issue and called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute based on the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions. Based on the grave importance of Kashmir as a potential ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing the UNGA warned the world community about the dangers of a nuclear war that according to him might break out over Kashmir due to Indian atrocities. The current situation appears to be the most critical time for both the countries and the region as both countries are nuclear-armed.

However, unfortunately, the Indian leaders and media perceived Prime Minister Imran Khan’s warning as a nuclear threat and termed it as ‘brinkmanship’. Contrary to this perspective, it is worth mentioning here that the Indian leadership itself is involved in negative nuclear signaling and war hysteria against Pakistan in recent months. For instance, the 2019 Indian General Election campaign of Prime Minister Modi was largely based on negative nuclear signaling comprising of several threats referring to the possible use of nuclear weapons against Pakistan. Furthermore, as an apparent shift from India’s ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy, on August 16, 2019Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while on a visit to the Pokhran nuclear test site paid tribute to the late former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and asserted that India might review its NFU policy. He stated that a change in future circumstances would likely define the status of India’s NFU policy. Since then there is no official denial of this assertion from India which indicates that India might abandon its NFU policy.

Moreover, India’s offensive missile development programs and its growing nuclear arsenal which include; hypersonic missiles, ballistic missile defence systems, enhanced space capabilities for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance and the induction of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile-capable submarines clearly indicate that India’s nuclear weapons modernization is aimed at continuously enhancing its deterrence framework including its second-strike capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan. This is also evident from India’s military preparations under its more recent doctrines such as the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD)which are also based upon more proactive offensive strategies and indirect threats of pre-emptive strikes against Pakistan.

As evident from the above-mentioned developments, it seems likely that India aspires to increasingly project itself as a regional hegemon and a potential superpower. The BJP government under Prime Minister Modi inspired by the Hindutva ideology is taking offensive measures under the notions of ‘a more Muscular or Modern India’ based on strong military preparedness. In such circumstances, Pakistan’s threat perception would likely remain increasingly inclined towards its eastern border. Pakistan due to its economic constraints would also likely face considerable difficulties in competing with India toe to toe with respect to its military modernization plans. Pakistan is already punching well above its weight, and nuclear deterrence would be the only way through which Pakistan can maintain a precise balance of power to preserve its security. This could only be carried out by deterring India with the employment of both minimum credible deterrence and full-spectrum deterrence capabilities. This posture clearly asserts that since Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes in principle, they are aimed at deterring India from any and all kinds of aggression.

Hence, at the present India’s forceful annexation of occupied Kashmir and the resultant nuclear discourse at the UNGA has further intensified Pakistan-India tensions. Under present circumstances, the situation could easily trigger another politico-military escalation between India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi has bet his political reputation on his move to annex the region and his political career is on the line. The same way Pakistan’s politico-military establishment is equally unlikely back down from its stance on Kashmir. It would be difficult for both countries to come down from the escalation ladder because politico-military reputations would be at stake at both ends. Consequently, Pakistan might be forced to take action before India’s modernization plans get ahead and might respond even sooner.

The nuclear discourse in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech against the backdrop of the Kashmir crisis at such a high forum like UNGA would likely keep the issue internationalized. The situation demands the UN fulfill its responsibility of ensuring peace and to prevent billions of people from the dangers of a nuclear war. However, Indian blame game, aggressive behavior and offensive nuclear signaling against Pakistan all present a clear warning of nuclear war. It would greatly limit the prospects for international mediation especially by the United Nations whose resolutions on Kashmir clearly provide a right of self-determination to decide Kashmir’s future.  

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1.2 trillion rupees on the move: Modi’s greatest piece of purchase yet

Sisir Devkota

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Last week, the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) was taken aback by more than a surprise. Just when it was dealing with the uncomfortable series of events that led to the transfer of surplus 1.2 trillion rupees into the government of India; social media erupted. It quickly realized that losing the battle regarding the transfer would only add fuel to the hoax of closing down nine commercial banks. RBI enjoys considerable amount of autonomy and independence in the largest democracy, and still, it had to kneel down to Modi’s alleged quick fix.

The RBI would have to vouch for the government in times of need, it is primarily what is expected of the institution; but there was a great deal of discomfort in how the government justified it. A committee set up under the ex-governor, Mr Bimal Jalan, cited how central banks would not need so much of surplus to carry out their affairs. Effectively, it was an order, not a request, which became the underlying discomfort behind RBI’s hesitancy in adhering to the views of capital transfer committee. Not that anyone expected the central lender to protest longer, it did however, request Mr Jalan to reconsider the decision at the face of various consequences. To say the least, it was embarrassing for a premier financial institution to be put under the public eye. The social media hoax was another ridicule of the sickly RBI. In the tales of grand conquests, the victorious army steals the wealth from the losing party. Similarly, the BJP led government in India are redefining all forms of state tools in favour of their interests.

Stolen wealth is most often than not used to correct economic blunders. Just like in the tales of grand conquests, the decision to transfer national wealth from the reserve bank is nothing new. It is nevertheless baffling, that the money transfer is looping in the same direction. While the BJP government in India were imposing a comprehensive GST (Goods and Service Tax) policy, they would not have anticipated complaints from large industries over decreased consumer consumption. For a party that is now known to redefine the legitimacy of governance, falling prey to NBFC’s (Non-bank Financial Companies) incompetence or bankruptcy is a visible defeat. Unlike many other soaring economies, there are large group of subsidiary lenders operating in India. On hindsight, economic policies are barely creating tunnels through which the capital is getting recycled in the same loop. Revenues are not generating further revenues. It is merely closing down on its self-inflicted gap.

The Security and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) almost played with fire. Uncharacteristically, it proposed a framework to work together with the RBI in order to claim outstanding defaults from high value clients. The RBI was never going to agree with a defaming offer as such but the incident did fuel the argument of capital shuffling. It only makes the bluff look more real. A strategic plan to counter all measures that would have blocked the transfer of trillions. As Mr Jalan sheepishly implied how the importance of central bank and what is does is only limited to the public perception, RBI fought a fix in between larger or rather dangerous political agendas. Consolidating requests from SEBI to only fall into the whims of the government shows the lack lustre personality of the central funding institution. For the time being, Narendra Modi has his way, a theft of national treasure-like his opposition colleague Rajiv Gandhi expressed in the media. However, there will also be a far-fetched evaluation of Modi’s actions. A move of 1.2 trillion rupees in the same pot. Not by any means, a cunning cover up.

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