Pakistan foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari arrived in China for the first time on Saturday, courting Islamabad’s closest economically as his freshly installed government grapples with a spiralling financial crisis.
Hard-up Pakistan is buckling under crippling debt, shrinking foreign currency reserves and soaring inflation. On Friday the national currency hit another historic low with 200 rupees fetching less than $1.
The downturn was used to oust former prime minister Imran Khan from office, but the new government led by Shehbaz Sharif now faces the gruelling task of begging for finance to bolster the economy.
A statement issued on Friday offered few hints about the two-day visit but said Zardari would meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi ‘with a particular focus on stronger trade and economic cooperation’.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the meeting would ‘deepen the all-weather strategic cooperative partnership’ between the nations.
Beijing has been among Islamabad’s most steadfast foreign patrons in recent years, willing to open its wallet to bail out its oft-ailing neighbour.
Since 2013 a gargantuan project known as the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has seen tens of billions of dollars funnelled into transport, energy and infrastructure schemes.
The IMF reports Pakistan has $18.4 billion in outstanding debt to China.
Talks are underway with the IMF and Pakistani officials in the Qatari capital Doha to unlock a fresh tranche of a $6 billion loan pledged in 2019, a process slowed by concerns about the pace of economic reforms in the South Asian country.
Saudi Arabia is also being coaxed to rollover a $3 billion loan.
Pakistani politicians frequently describe relations with China as ‘higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the ocean and sweeter than honey’.
But ties have been strained by numerous hurdles in recent years, including the stalled and scaled back CPEC project.
Pakistan is also struggling to rein in separatist militants from Balochistan, who are targeting Chinese nationals and interests.
Insurgents claim locals are being cut out of a fair share of riches derived from the arid province’s natural resources.
Last month a female suicide bomber killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in the city of Karachi.
Pakistan’s dire economic situation also threatens to prompt an early election.
The current parliament will expire in October 2023 and the new government is mulling whether to call a snap poll, heaping blame for the economy on its predecessor, or attempt a rapid turnaround which may include unpopular austerity measures.
On Thursday, the government banned almost 40 non-essential luxury items in an austerity move it hopes will save the country’s precious foreign exchange reserves.