Opinion

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

Pakistan’s most recent debt and balance of payment crises have come to highlight yet again with 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 years’ 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.

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