U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pledged more funds to help flood-ravaged Pakistan and pressed the South Asian nation to seek debt relief and restructuring from its largest creditor, China, to deal with the catastrophic flooding.
Blinken spoke late on Monday after wide-ranging bilateral talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in Washington, saying he also discussed with his counterpart a “shared stake” in Afghanistan, counterterrorism cooperation and Islamabad’s strained ties with India.
“We’ve marshaled over $56 million in immediate humanitarian assistance. We’ve been able to send about 17 planes full of supplies like food and materials to build shelters, tents, tarps. And today I’m pleased to announce another $10 million in food security assistance,” Blinken told an event at the State Department marking the 75th anniversary of relations between the United States and Pakistan.
Erratic seasonal rainfall, made worse by global climate change, has triggered the floods across Pakistan, killing more than 1,600 people, including nearly 600 children, affecting 33 million others and drenching large parts of the country, especially the southern Sindh province, since mid-June.
The flooding has destroyed more than 1.4 million hectares of arable land, raising fears it will exacerbate food insecurity issues across the country of about 220 million people. Pakistani officials estimate the deluge has inflicted more than $30 billion in damages on national infrastructure, washing away roads, bridges and more than 800,000 houses.
The disaster has hit as Pakistan struggles to address deeply rooted economic challenges and meet external debt repayment commitments amid dwindling foreign exchange cash reserves.
“We talked about the importance of managing a responsible relationship with India, and I also urged our colleagues to engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructure so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods,” Blinken said.
Pakistani officials say they have already spoken to the Paris Club of wealthy nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank about immediate debt relief in the wake of the devastating floods. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif told New York-based Bloomberg news in an interview last week he plans to take up the debt relief matter with China.
“We have experienced a climate catastrophe of biblical, apocalyptic proportions…And when the rain finally stopped, a hundred-kilometer lake formed in the middle of my country that’s slowly descending to the sea, to the ocean,” Zardari said while speaking alongside Blinken at the event in Washington.
“The irony of this is that Pakistan has contributed 0.8% to the global carbon output, but we are amongst the 10 most climate-stressed countries on the planet. And that’s why we look to you for assistance and support so we can get our people climate justice,” he said.
Dozens of countries have over the past month sent cargo flights, trucks and trains, carrying urgent relief goods, food and medicines for flood victims in Pakistan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday that his government had provided nearly $59 million worth of humanitarian aid to Pakistan since the country was hit by the floods. He told a regular news conference in Beijing that the civil society in China has also raised about $17 million worth of donations and flood-relief supplies.
“China and Pakistan are all-weather strategic cooperative partners and ironclad brothers that have always stood with each other in trying times…We believe that our brotherly Pakistan will surely prevail over the disaster and rebuild their homes at an early date,” Wang said.
The loan Pakistan owes to China, includes $6 billion in balance of payments support. It stems from the bilateral China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship program of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The massive project has built Pakistani roads, power plants and a strategic deep-water port at an overall cost of more than $25 billion in direct Chinese investment and soft long-term loans over the past seven years.
Pakistani officials maintain, however, that the Chinese loan is around 10% of the country’s 130 billion external debt, the bulk of which it owes to Western nations and international finance institutions
Blinken said while speaking on Monday that the United States and Pakistan “continue to work closely” on counterterrorism challenges and the two sides also discussed a “shared stake” in the future of Afghanistan after two decades of war there.
“We’ve had our differences; that’s no secret. But we share a common objective: a more stable, a more peaceful, and free future for all of Afghanistan and for those across the broader region. We’ll continue to work together toward that end as well as support the basic human rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls,” stated the chief U.S. diplomat.
A foreign ministry statement issued in Islamabad quoted Zardari as telling Blinken that Afghanistan needed assistance to avert its ongoing humanitarian crisis and underlined Pakistan’s resolve to work with the international community to achieve peace, development, and stability in the war-torn neighboring country.