WASHINGTON: The Trump administration on Thursday sought to bring Pakistan back into its sphere of influence by offering new business opportunities with US for Islamabad alongside a lengthy critique of the country’s engagement with Beijing through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The US push to regain ground it has lost to China came on the heels of President Trump’s phone call to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, ostensibly to thank him for Islamabad’s efforts in facilitating the release of two Western hostages in Afghanistan. A White House statement said the two leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the US-Pakistan trade relationship as well as investment and people-to-people ties between the two countries.
Trump had earlier cut off aid to Pakistan in keeping with his distaste for doling out American freebies, but he has repeatedly said he is in favor of greater trade with all countries as long as it is on a level playing field. Pakistan too has come around to saying it prefers to grow through trade rather than aid.
Trump’s phone call came even as a senior US official critiqued Pakistan’s economic engagement with China under the One Belt One Road (OBOR) rubric, warning that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the main initiative under OBOR, comes “potentially at an unsustainable cost to Pakistan.”
“Inflated pricing of power & development projects isn’t good for the Pakistani people. CPEC almost always takes the form of burdensome loans or financing with Chinese state-owned enterprises and the Chinese government profiting. This is hardly the ‘peace and win-win cooperation’ OBOR is supposed to facilitate,” US Assistant Secretary of State for South Central Asia Alice Wells tweeted ahead of a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she said Pakistan faced long-term economic damage with little return if China keeps pursuing its giant infrastructure push.
“While the world’s economies certainly benefit from initiatives that promote sustainable global investment & trade, OBOR is far from responsible in its economic practices. OBOR lacks transparent financing practices. Failure to repay can lead to unsustainable debt burdens, which can result in surrendering of assets and diminishing sovereignty,” Wells warned.
Wells also argued that CPEC also relies primarily on Chinese workers and supplies rather than giving that business to Pakistani companies and workers. She contrasted CPEC with the US-Pakistan business partnership which she said “contributes to sustainable growth and expertise that builds capacity for local communities and by bringing superior quality & technology, drives productivity gains in Pakistan.”
“Unlike the Chinese government, the US doesn’t tell businesses where to go; they go where they see the greatest opportunities. There are countless commercial connections between US & #Pakistan leading to thousands of jobs for Pakistanis,” Wells said, adding that the US culture of corporate social responsibility also provides models for creating jobs and opportunities.
Pakistan though remains in thrall of Beijing, even though the Trump administration has twitted it by highlighting China’s poor treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province to prick its conscience. China though is reported to be unhappy with the pace of implementation of CPEC projects, resulting in a recent ministerial reshuffle by Prime Minister Imran Khan to address Beijing’s disquiet.