No ‘debt swap’ talks with Beijing yet, says Bilawal

KARACHI: Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said on Thursday that Islamabad had so far not requested a restructuring, deferment or swap of debt owed to China in the wake of the catastrophic floods that hit the country.

Insisting that whenever such a conversation takes place, it would be on Pakis­tan’s own terms, he said that he would like the country to play the role of a bridge between China and the United States, rather than exacerbating tensions or “being a geopolitical football”.

“What China does — whether it’s with Sri Lanka or Pakistan — that’s totally China’s decision. Just like it’s 100 percent America’s decision in either of these circumstances,” he said in an interview with Foreign Policy’s Ravi Agarwal, who pointed out that Beijing “hasn’t quite come to Pakistan’s aid in a big way” after this year’s catastrophic floods and that even Sri Lanka wasn’t able to get much help from China in the wake of an economic crisis.

Bilawal went on to say: “Rather than being a point of competition or a venue for these divisions (between China and the US) to be exacerbated, I would like Pakistan to continue to play a role that we have in the past. Pakistan originally played a bridge between China and the US, resulting in diplomatic relations between the two countries.”

“And right now, particularly when we’re drowning in floods, I don’t want to play any part in exacerbating any tensions or being a geopolitical football,” reported on Thursday.

“In this time of great geopolitical division, I would much rather play the role of a bridge by uniting these two great powers around working together for climate change.”

The foreign minister hoped that “perhaps, Pakistan’s unique position as a friend of both the US and China could encourage cooperation on this front”.

Bilawal’s remarks come against the backdrop of China and the US engaging in a war of words over assistance for debt and flood relief to Pakistan to help it cope with the consequences of this year’s deluges.

On Monday, US State Secretary Antony Blinken called on Pakistan to seek debt relief from China while reiterating Washington’s support to Islamabad in these challenging times.

The remarks had drawn a censorious response from China, whose foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin had called out the US for “passing unwarranted criticism against Pakistan-China cooperation” and urged it to do something “real and beneficial” for the people of Pakistan.

Talking about the history of China-Pakistan ties, he recalled that Islamabad had offered its hand in friendship to Beijing when no one else did. “Now, everybody wants to be friends with China,” he commented, as he went on to elaborate on how China had come to Pakistan’s help in recent times.

Later, in a news conference on Thursday, the foreign minister said that India and Pakistan should also cooperate to resist climate change.

“Our neighbor is concerned with all the caveats that we have already given. So, in principle, we should cooperate on climate change. Our people are facing the consequences. We should all work together.”

“We should have the moral strength to say that on climate change we should cooperate with India, if we do not work together now, it will affect the entire region, the entire world. We will not have the world that we live in,” he said.

When asked to comment on Secretary Blinken’s statement regarding seeking debt relief from China, the minister said that so far, Islamabad had not made any request for debt restructuring, deferment, or swap. “If we have a conversation with China, it should be between Pakistan and China alone, no one else needs to interfere. Engagement with China should continue. Whenever we have this conversation, it will be between us and China. I hope that it does not become a victim of geopolitics.”

Anwar Iqbal in Washington also contributed to this report