If one were to look at two events in South Asia – the economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the downfall of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) government in Pakistan, one of the points which clearly emerges is that both the South Asian nations have moved closer to China, and there are pitfalls to being excessively dependent upon Beijing. Both countries have often been accused of becoming excessively reliant upon China and falling into what has been dubbed as a “debt trap,” which leads not only to rising economic dependency — as a result of piling debts — but also to Beijing dictating political choices.
External debts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), according to estimates in February 2022, had said that Pakistan owe $18.4 billion (or 1/5th) of its external debt to China, while Sri Lanka’s total debt to China is estimated at $8 billion, its total external debt is $45 billion.
In the case of Pakistan, a lot of attention has been focused on Imran Khan’s independent stance on the Ukraine issue, and a possible external hand in his ouster. Yet the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition, led by PML-N Supremo Shahbaz Sharif — which is now in power – has repeatedly pointed to Khan’s mismanagement of the economy and the growing disillusionment of the public as well as erstwhile allies (one of the final blows to Khan’s hopes of staying in power was when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM) pulled out of the PTI alliance) as some of the key reasons for the ouster of the PTI government. While no political party can afford to say it, Pakistan’s dependence upon China has begun to cause concern, especially amongst sections of the business community who are keen to diversify the country’s economic relations.
The dire economic crisis which has hit Sri Lanka has been attributed to multiple factors; economic mismanagement by the government, dip in remittances as well as a fall in tourism as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and over reliance on China.
Interestingly, while earlier Sri Lanka had refused to seek assistance from the IMF, it has been compelled to, as it is left with limited options. A Sri Lankan team headed by newly-appointed Finance Minister Ali Sabry is headed to Washington DC for negotiations with the Americans. In an interview to Bloomberg television, the Sri Lankan Finance Minister said “‘We need immediate emergency funding to get Sri Lanka back on track.”
If one were to look at the instance of Pakistan, while Islamabad has become increasingly dependent upon China in recent years — especially as a result of its deterioration of ties with the US, and the $64 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project – it has realized that it can not allow its ties with the West to slide further even though close relations with China are imperative. It is not only Western analysts and US policy makers but even ministers in the previous Imran Khan-led PTI government who had actually raised question marks with regard to the economic sustainability of certain CPEC projects. China had expressed its displeasure to Pakistan over the same.
One of the reasons cited for Imran Khan’s differences with the Pakistan army have been his anti-West stance – the former PM accused the US of plotting his downfall and for following an independent foreign policy, pointing to a memo which said that “…if the no-confidence motion passes, Pakistan will be forgiven, if not, there will be consequences.” The US has repeatedly dismissed these charges levelled by Imran Khan.
Khan’s successor, Shahbaz Sharif, has given clear indicators that he will focus on relations with China and Saudi Arabia. He has also hinted at mending ties with the West. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a congratulatory message to the Pakistan PM, said:
The United States congratulates newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and we look forward to continuing our long-standing cooperation.
Pakistan is dependent upon the US and EU, since they are important export markets. During his address at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, while commenting on Pakistan-US ties, had said: “we share a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US which remains our largest export market.”
Pakistan’s grey list status at Financial Action Task Force (FATF) will also be in review in June 2022. Islamabad would need to mend ties with Western countries if it wants its grey list status to be removed. Pakistan is also likely to resume negotiations with the IMF for the 7th review of the $6 billion loan agreement which was signed with the IMF in 2019. For smooth negotiations with the IMF, a working relationship with Washington DC is essential.
In conclusion, while it is true that Western institutions impose stringent conditions on developing countries and they are compelled to look for different options, excessive dependence upon China has its own pitfalls. It is time for South Asia to look inwards and focus on strengthening regional cooperation and realise that no external player can come up with sustainable solutions for dealing with the region’s economic challenges.