When great nations wage their diplomatic battles, it is the countries in the middle that have to make the most difficult decisions. Pakistan has maintained a precarious balance in its friendly relations with China, with restrained cooperation with the United States at the same time. Now however, it seems Pakistan might have to make a choice, as Prime Minister Imran Khan finds himself between a rock and a hard place on the most pressing question facing the country.

Our Finance Ministry recently had to make the reluctant but necessary decision to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout. It was an unpopular action among the people, due to the perception that an IMF loan often comes with many strings attached. It appears that perception was actually fact, as the conditions to the IMF loan become more apparent, and very tricky strings they are. IMF and the United States have signaled that, to obtain the bailout, Pakistan’s package projects with China will come under scrutiny and perhaps may be reevaluated. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been particularly stringent on transparency in Chinese projects, with the US contending that part of the reason that Pakistan found itself in this situation is Chinese debt.

Meanwhile China has said that it endorses Pakistan’s request to the IMF for financial assistance to address economic challenges – after all, China also holds significant voting rights in IMF and could have boycotted the bailout if it wanted. Yet the Chinese Foreign Ministry has specified that the IMF loan should not affect cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad, a clear indication the China will not tolerate external interference in CPEC projects.

This effectively puts Pakistan in a bind- we will have to choose a side here. An IMF loan is crucial to give the economy some breathing space, yet Pakistan cannot compromise on its friendship with China, and on CPEC. Compromises will have to be made either way, and the path forward requires some tough negotiation and renegotiation.

However, it is reasonable to assume regional and strategic goals will take precedence. It will be a true test of political will for the government to weigh the consequences and costs of any decisive action it takes in dilemmas of foreign policy. It is hoped that Imran Khan’s trip to China next month will sort out these kinks, as well as serve as reassurance of Pakistan’s commitment to CPEC.