Our nuclear and debt bombs
During the recently concluded sixth ministerial-level Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue, Pakistan’s nuclear programme and economy attracted the maximum attention of the delegates. The US tried to twist Pakistan’s arm to reduce its nuclear arsenal. However, Pakistan firmly expressed the resolve by not accepting any curbs on it, saying America must show “greater understanding” of its security concerns in South Asia. In his arguments, Secretary of State John Kerry erred by drawing a parallel between the strategic environment between the US and Russia, and India-Pakistan relations.
A day later, during an interaction at the Council on Foreign Relations, Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz ruled out any change in Pakistan’s nuclear policy. “In terms of the safety and security of nuclear weapons command and control system, we have made outstanding progress. Globally, all the international agencies and the US have acknowledged that Pakistan has developed a very good system for the safety for export control, and command and control system…But the [American] concern remains. Our nuclear capacity is a deterrent against Indian capacity. Deterrence is not a static concept, it is dynamic. If your adversary goes on expanding its capacity, then you have to respond,” he said. “We keep insisting in our relationship that India is the independent variable in this. We are the dependent variable. So if India were to restrain and US would not increase its strategic and conventional imbalance between the two countries, then our task would become easier.” Aziz aptly argued.
From the economic perspective, Pakistan can’t even afford this strategic and conventional imbalance with India. The menace of terrorism is not the biggest threat to Pakistan’s security but India’s increasing strategic and conventional imbalance in the South Asian region is the real challenge. Aziz conceded that the nuclear issue was one of the areas of difference between the US and Pakistan. In the joint statement, the United States and Pakistan have called for a peaceful settlement of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, and urged all parties in the region to act with “maximum restraint” for the reduction of tensions.
On its part, Pakistan has sought nuclear mainstreaming of Pakistan. In this context, Sartaj Aziz argued: “Our engagement on non-proliferation and strategic stability will continue and Pakistan hopes to see greater US understanding of Pakistan’s security concerns and its desire to contribute actively as a mainstream nuclear power.” Pakistan has said that it will not accept any unilateral curbs on its nuclear programme and that any reduction should apply to India as well and the US should also consider its concerns on the growing conventional weapons disparity. The Foreign Office has issued a statement in which Aziz has “impressed upon the United States not to contribute to strategic imbalance in South Asia by helping India”.
A day later, back home in Islamabad, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar supplemented the argument: “We will not roll back our nuclear programme even if our debts swell to $100 trillion dollars,” dismissing outright Western media reports that suggest Islamabad could barter its nuclear arsenal for dollars. “We did not start this [nuclear] programme to roll it back,” Dar told the Senate. “This is a programme of our security, and it is our national responsibility to protect it…All political parties of Pakistan share the ownership of our nuclear programme.” he added. He also referred to a 2008 article in Wall Street Journal headlined ‘Let’s Buy Pakistan’s Nukes’ in which the author asked Western donors to agree on a $100 billion economic package in exchange for eliminating Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. “This will never happen,” Dar said emphatically. He mentioned another article which suggested the ever-ballooning debt may lead Pakistan to compromise on its national security assets.
The Finance Minister painted a rosy picture of Pakistan’s national economy. “A turnaround has taken place today, and our next target is growth.” Dar’s hour-long speech in the Senate failed to earn him appreciation from the Upper House as the opposition remained sceptical about the cited debt figures. The minister claimed that external public debt stood at $53.1 billion, as of end-January – an amount which is roughly $15 billion less than that shown in IMF documents; public debt stood at $47.8 billion when the present government came into power.
According to the minister, the value of foreign loans received by the government during the last three years stood at $20.8 billion out of which it repaid debts up to $12.9 billion. Dar said that the average cost of borrowing of $20.8 billion stood at 1.62% in 2013, 1.72% in 2014 and 1.92% in 2015; however, he skipped the borrowing cost of dollar-denominated Euro Bonds that the government floated at extremely high rates in the range of 7.25% to 8.25%. He also excluded non-plan loans and publically guaranteed debt from the definition of external public debt. Likewise, the debt statement for 2015-16, issued last month by the government has also tried to hide the rapid growth of external debt and liabilities in comparison to its foreign exchange earnings, by excluding liabilities. While justifying discrepancies in the figures, Dar said that there was a difference between public debt and total debt. “Country’s public debt is $53.4 billion and its total debt is $68.5 billion,” he said and added that the talks about $100 billion loan were totally wrong.
Pakistan’s economy was also a subject in the strategic dialogue; both sides expressed their conviction that a robust, long-term bilateral relationship remains critical to regional and international security and prosperity. And that the United States and Pakistan have a shared and enduring interest in Pakistan’s continued economic growth and prosperity. Delegates acknowledged the importance of sustaining cooperation on shared interests through US civilian assistance, in line with the intent and spirit of the infamous legislation known as “Kerry-Lugar-Berman” act.
The American side commended the steps Pakistan has taken to implement an economic reform agenda, which has advanced Pakistan’s macroeconomic stability and improved growth, including the government’s commitment to complete the set of home grown reforms and hoped that continued reforms will make Pakistan more economically competitive and attractive for foreign investment. Both sides agreed that the modernisation of Pakistan’s economy through better technology, improved business climate, entrepreneurship, enhanced worker rights, and opportunities for women will drive the country’s economic growth.
Most of the factors, which determine a good economic health are poorly addressed in Pakistan. The human development report yearly issued by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows Pakistan at a lower level; 146 out of 187, countries. Also, there has been persistent low per capita income rate. From 2008 to 2015, the average growth has been around 3.5 percent, which is quite low—certainly not an enviable benchmark. The last five years of Pakistan’s economy were highly inflationary. This was a major hurdle in the way of development. Rather than attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), even local Pakistani investors left the country, in numbers, for investing in neighbouring countries. Even though the inflation rate is negative now—thanks to crash of oil prices, the inflation induced damage done during the recent years, in terms of investors’ confidence, will take a long time to reverse.
A nuclear programme spanning full spectrum deterrence and a robust economy, are both vitally important to the existence of state and well-being of the people of Pakistan. Interestingly, in Pakistan’s strategic calculus, these two do not have a linear relationship. Pakistan’s unusual Bomb-Economy relationship was first articulated by the then Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, way back in 1965: “…if India got it (atom bomb) then we shall have to eat grass and get one, or buy one, of our own.” Ever since, national consensus has stood by and upheld this notion — like a gospel obligation.