Moreover, the initiative has pushed some countries into a morass of debt. The starkest example so far has been Sri Lanka, whose government was unable to repay $6 billion in loans used to build an expensive Chinese-led port and airport project in Hambantota, a once-sleepy but strategically located backwater. As a result, Sri Lankan authorities ceded control of the port and some 15,000 acres of land around it to Beijing on a 99-year lease. The move led to accusations that China is engaging in a 21st-century style of “creditor imperialism.”
At a Tuesday panel in Washington, Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University, quipped that the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor — the formal name for a complex $62 billion infrastructure-development plan — actually should be called “Colonizing Pakistan to Enrich China.”
Both Chinese and Pakistani officials argue that charges of “colonialism” are overblown. The two countries share a historic friendship, largely framed by their mutual antipathy toward India. In recent years, China has stepped up its involvement in various sectors of the Pakistani economy, from its nuclear-energy industry to the establishment of a host of special economic zones to a costly port project in the city of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.
“Pakistan does need China’s help, as it faces a slew of economic challenges, including a backward industrial supply chain, weak foreign trade and a huge portion of its population still living in poverty and without proper education,” noted an editorial in China’s state-run Global Times, urging Beijing officials to “ignore the noise and step up its investment in Pakistan.”
Khan, meanwhile, is a fiery nationalist and economic populist. He has repeatedly gestured to the “China model” as something Pakistan should emulate. But it’s not yet clear what any of that means in practice, and the enthusiasm for his rhetoric may simply reflect widespread frustration with Pakistan’s systemic corruption and long-standing habit of turning to the IMF and accepting its diktats.
Khan doesn’t look set to break that tradition. But the Trump administration may force him to. “Make no mistake. We will be watching what the IMF does,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the end of last month, arguing that he didn’t want the U.S. to indirectly refinance Pakistani loans to China. “There’s no rationale for IMF tax dollars — and, associated with that, American dollars that are part of the IMF funding — for those to go to bail out Chinese bondholders or China itself.”
“The goal for the [Belt and Road Initiative] is the creation of an economic world order ultimately dominated by China,” read a recent letter from a bipartisan group of senators to Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “It is imperative that the United States counters China’s attempts to hold other countries financially hostage and force ransoms that further its geostrategic goals.”
For Pakistan, caught between China’s ambition and Washington’s concern, there are few good choices.
“These are our two masters,” Turab Hussain, an economics professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, told the New York Times. “How do you serve both?”