ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – After lengthy delays, an $8.2 billion revamp of a colonial-era rail line snaking from the Arabian Sea to the foothills of the Hindu Kush has become a test of Pakistan’s ability to rethink signature Chinese “Silk Road” projects due to debt concerns.A cargo train loaded with coal dust, moves past the port area near City Station in Karachi, Pakistan September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
The rail megaproject linking the coastal metropolis of Karachi to the northwestern city of Peshawar is China’s biggest Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in Pakistan, but Islamabad has balked at the cost and financing terms.
Resistance has stiffened under the new government of populist Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has voiced alarm about rising debt levels and says the country must wean itself off foreign loans.
“We are seeing how to develop a model so the government of Pakistan wouldn’t have all the risk,” Khusro Bakhtyar, a minister in Pakistan’s planning ministry, told reporters recently.
The cooling of enthusiasm for China’s investments mirrors the unease of incoming governments in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Maldives, where new administrations have come to power wary of Chinese deals struck by their predecessors.
Pakistan’s new government had wanted to review all BRI contracts. Officials say there are concerns the deals were badly negotiated, too expensive or overly favored China.
But to Islamabad’s frustration, Beijing is only willing to review projects that have not yet begun, three senior government officials have told Reuters.
China’s Foreign Ministry said, in a statement in response to questions faxed by Reuters, that both sides were committed to pressing forward with BRI projects, “to ensure those projects that are already built operate as normal, and those which are being built proceed smoothly”.
Pakistani officials say they remain committed to Chinese investment but want to push harder on price and affordability while re-orientating the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – for which Beijing has pledged about $60 billion in infrastructure funds – to focus on projects that deliver social development in line with Khan’s election platform.
China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, told Reuters that Beijing was open to changes proposed by the new government and “we will definitely follow their agenda” to work out a roadmap for BRI projects based on “mutual consultation”.
“It constitutes a process of discussion with each other about this kind of model, about this kind of roadmap for the future,” Yao said.