Islamabad would like Beijing to talk to Kabul on terrorism, Pakistani minister says

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s minister for planning and development, Ahsan Iqbal, says his country is not opposed to Afghanistan’s inclusion in a Chinese-funded mega-development project, but would like Beijing to persuade Kabul to crack down on terrorist groups operating on its soil against Islamabad.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s new government, which took office in March, is anxious to revive the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC – a roughly $62 billion flagship project that is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative – which has suffered a slump in recent years due to political, economic, and security problems in Pakistan.

Iqbal recently met officials in China to prepare for Sharif’s upcoming visit aimed at quickening the pace and broadening the scope of CPEC.

Securing CPEC

Threats against Chinese nationals have emerged as a major impediment to CPEC’s progress in recent years. Since 2021, at least 17 Chinese nationals have died in targeted attacks in Pakistan.

In late March, five Chinese workers and their Pakistani driver were killed when a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into their bus. Pakistani authorities identified the attacker as an Afghan national and claimed the attack was planned in Afghanistan.

“I think this is a cause for concern,” Iqbal said about the alleged use of Afghan territory for attacks on Chinese citizens in Pakistan.

Speaking exclusively to VOA, Iqbal said his government would like Beijing to use its influence to push Kabul to take action against cross-border terrorists.

“We also hope that China would also persuade Afghanistan because Afghanis [Afghans] also listen to the Chinese government in the region,” he said. 

The Afghan Taliban deny giving space to terrorists, but research suggests terrorist groups have a presence there.

When asked if Islamabad had formally requested Beijing to push the Afghan Taliban to curb anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, Iqbal referred VOA to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The minister rejected the idea that attacks on Chinese nationals were a failure on Pakistan’s part, where a special military unit as well as local law enforcement are tasked with ensuring their safety.

“When you’re fighting a war against terrorism, terrorists always find a way,” Iqbal said, adding that major powers like the United States and Russia were also victims.

Chinese officials are pressing Pakistan publicly to ensure better safety of their workers and to hold those responsible for the killings accountable.

Iqbal said Beijing was right to demand better security for its nationals and that it knows Pakistan is doing more.

“But the Chinese government has said it very clearly that such cowardly incidents will not deter them from pursuing CPEC,” he added.

Washington vs. Beijing

Chinese funding, while welcome, comes largely in the form of expensive loans. According to research by AidData, a research organization based at the College of William and Mary in the U.S. state of Virginia, between 2000 to 2021, Pakistan’s cumulative debt to China stood at $67.2 billion.

Iqbal dismissed Washington’s concerns about Pakistan’s mounting Chinese debt. The United States also accuses China of predatory lending practices, an allegation Beijing denies.

“I think China has shown [a] great amount of understanding,” he said. “I wish just as China understands Pakistan’s difficulties, [the] IMF [International Monetary Fund] and other friends also would give Pakistan that margin of understanding.”

When CPEC was starting in 2013, Iqbal said he told officials in Washington that “right now China is giving us $46 billion of hard investment in infrastructure and I doubt very much that you can even get $4 million approved from Congress for Pakistan.”

Despite being allies in the 20-year U.S.-led Afghan war, Washington and Islamabad share a long history of mistrust.

Walking a tightrope between Washington and Beijing while the two battle for geopolitical influence, Iqbal said Islamabad would like to harness the “soft power” of the U.S and send Pakistani scholars and researchers there to earn doctorate degrees.

“So, if China is helping us build our infrastructure or hardware, we look forward to the U.S., that it should help us build our software that will run that hardware,” Iqbal said. “I think that way Pakistan can really benefit from both its friends, United States and China.”

CPEC Phase-2

Launched in 2013, CPEC has given nearly 2,000 kilometers of roads to Pakistan, added 8,000 megawatts of electricity to the national grid, and created close to 200,000 jobs, according to Pakistani and Chinese officials.

In the much-delayed and much-talked-about Phase 2 of CPEC, Pakistan hopes some of the pending projects from the first phase will be completed. Moving away from government-to-government initiatives, Pakistan wants private Chinese businesses to collaborate with companies in Pakistan in the second phase. It is also eyeing jobs leaving China due to increasing labor costs to come to Pakistan, where manpower is abundant and cheap.

“China considers Pakistan as a strategic friend and has confidence in Pakistan,” Iqbal said, when pressed why more Chinese companies would come to Pakistan while their counterparts are struggling to get their dues.

Pakistan owes almost $2 million to Chinese power producers that set up shop under CPEC. It has an economy of roughly $350 billion but according to the State Bank of Pakistan, the country’s central bank, Pakistan’s total debt and liabilities are hovering near $290 billion.

After escaping default last year, Islamabad is seeking a new bailout from the IMF, which expects Pakistan’s economy to grow 2% in 2024.

Iqbal said China invested in Pakistan when the country was having difficult times.

“When China decided to invest $25 billion in Pakistan, this is [in] 2013, when we had 18 hours of power shortages” and frequent suicide bombings, he said. “At that time they decided to come to Pakistan and support Pakistan,” the minister said. “That shows they have trust and confidence in Pakistan.”

Iqbal said the recent bullish performance of the country’s stock exchange showed, ” … local investors have full confidence in the direction the government is following and I think it is the same sense of confidence that Chinese investors and Chinese government has in this government.”

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