Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has said he would like Pakistan to play the role of a bridge between China and the United States, rather than play a part in exacerbating tensions or “being a geopolitical football”.
The foreign minister made these remarks while answering a series of questions during an interview with Foreign Policy on Islamabad’s ties with Washington and Beijing, particularly in the context of assistance pledged and provided by the two in the wake of calamitous floods.
“What China does — whether it’s with Sri Lanka or Pakistan — that’s totally China’s decision. Just like it’s 100 per cent America’s decision in either of these circumstances,” he said after Foreign Policy’s Ravi Agarwal 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.
“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 had 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.
For his part, Bilawal has called on both the world powers to set aside their differences and work together to deal with the challenge of climate change.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, Bilawal asserted that “not everything is about the geopolitical conflict of the US and China.
“And I think it’s preposterous that we’re even having that conversation while talking about my country’s survival and our ability to deal with cataclysmic flooding—it’s absolutely ridiculous. We won’t be able to confront climate change if the United States and China don’t work together”.
In this connection, the foreign minister also explained that the relationship between China and Pakistan had “long, bipartisan roots”.
He added that Pakistan had wanted to be friends with China 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.
‘Flood response fantastic, but a drop in the ocean’
Bilawal also spoke about the foreign assistance Pakistan has received so far to deal with catastrophic floods in a broader perspective, terming the international response to appeals for help “fantastic”, yet a “drop in the ocean” compared to what the country needed.
“We’re still in the initial rescue-and-relief phase, and we’re conducting our damage needs assessment. So far, we’ve only launched flash appeals, to which we’ve had a fantastic response — not only the United States’ contribution of around $60 million but from all of our friends,” he said.
“Isn’t that just a drop in the ocean, so to speak?” Agarwal asked back, to which Bilawal replied, “It’s all a drop in the ocean compared to what we need”.
He added that after the assessment of the amount needed to cover the loss caused by floods, Pakistan would be in a better place to understand the total damage.
“At the moment, it’s just a guesstimate, which puts the total damage at $30 billion.”
Bilawal further termed his trip to the US, where he attended the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and spoke at various other forums, “positive”.
“We’ve been able to highlight the plight of our country,” he said, expressing his gratitude to UN Secretary General António Guterres for visiting Pakistan prior to the UNGA meeting and “effectively focused a lot of those meetings into talk about climate — in particular Pakistan’s floods”.
When asked about the prospects of progress on Green Marshall Plan at the upcoming COP27 summit previously, Bilawal replied, “I don’t think that because hopes have been dashed that we should stop trying.
“I have talked about climate justice, and rather than seeing it as a contradiction, I would see it as a continuation of the stated position of the president of the US, and the leaders of many countries in Europe, that we need to invest, get the money together, not only for climate adaptation domestically but also internationally.
“And within that context, I proposed a Green Marshall Plan for climate-stressed countries, all of which contribute negligibly to the global carbon funds.”
When asked who would fund the plan, Bilawal replied: “The great polluters who have caused this crisis.”
He stressed the need for out-of-the-box solutions for dealing with the climate crisis, “one of which is the proposal of a debt swap for climate, where countries that owe a debt to the great polluters would swap this debt”.
Moreover, he said the proposed solution would not only be in the public sector space and the private sector would have to be encouraged to invest in climate adaptation.
“I believe that the public-private partnership model could be adopted not only for green energy but also for green infrastructure.”
At a later stage in the interview, Agarwal asked Bilawal whether Pakistan was getting any help or expecting any help from India to deal with the destruction caused by floods.
Bilawal replied in the negative to both queries.
At that, Agarwal asked him if he could say something to the Indian foreign minister or the Indian audience, what would he say.
“If I could say something, I wouldn’t say it to you. Look, this is their choice, their position,” Bilawal replied.
The interviewer then asked the foreign minister if he had asked for help to deal with the flood destruction.
“No, to be honest. I haven’t asked anyone. I didn’t ask for help from the US — they volunteered it. Didn’t ask for help from China — they volunteered. Didn’t ask for help from the Middle East — they volunteered,” Bilawal said.
“In times of human catastrophe, I think it tests everyone’s humanity.”
“More comfortable with our relationship with US today’
The interview also covered Pakistan’s relations with the US and their evolution over the years, with Agarwal drawing comparisons between the assistance provided by Washington during the devastating floods of 2010 and those of 2022.
“US aid today is a fraction of what it used to be. Does it worry you that Pakistan’s relationship with America isn’t what it used to be?” he asked.
To that, Bilawal replied: “No, actually, I’m far more comfortable in our relationship today with America than back in 2010. I think that we were hyphenated as ‘Af-Pak’ and seen only through the prism of Afghanistan.”
He elaborated that following Islamabad’s re-engagement with the US State Department and the US government, “we’ve seen a more broad-based conversation about our trade relations.
“But to be realistic, we have to understand that the world has changed. It’s not just Pakistan or the US that has changed. We’ve seen a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. We’ve seen the fall of Kabul. We’ve seen the Ukraine crisis.
“It’s a very different economic space. And a lot of money is being spent domestically and on other international issues. I’m very cognisant that everyone is dealing with domestic economic challenges.”
Referring to the mention of Af-Pak in Bilawal’s reply, Agarwal asked him what level of cooperation had Pakistan offered Washington in the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US strike in Afghanistan last month.
“I mean, it wasn’t in our country, nor was it in our information that this individual was there or that there was an operation to take him out,” answered Bilawal.
Agarwal then specifically asked whether Pakistan offered its airspace to the US for carrying out the drone strike.
“No. As I said, we were not aware of this. I don’t think anybody was,” Bilawal reiterated.