NEW DELHI—During the 20th G-20 summit in New Delhi, a new multimodal connectivity and economic corridor called IMEC was announced, linking India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Israel and the European Union through a series of shipping ports and rail routes.
Pitched as a transformative project under the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment, the project not only treads through geopolitical fault lines but is also seen as a competition to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), according to experts on the matter.
Plurilateralism Versus UnilateralismPlurilateralism and unilateralism have serious geopolitical implications because the growth of inter-regional connectivity involves various issues, including financial, development, policy, and security. Whether it's multilateral or unilateral determines the intermediary and long-term outcomes. There are also increasing concerns about the weaponization of China's BRI, according to experts.
"It is certainly the case that the opacity and Chinese control over BRI stands in stark contrast to the multiple stakeholder engagement and sources of funding in the IMEC," Harsh Pant, the vice president of Studies and Foreign Policy at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation told The Epoch Times in an email.
In fact, multilateral projects are the new norm in global connectivity. At the 2021 G7 Summit, leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the United States agreed on a global 'values-driven, high-standard and transparent infrastructure partnership' called the 'Build Back Better World' (B3W) initiative.
On the other hand, Chinese BRI has been in trouble often, with 14 percent of the projects under it, in terms of number and 32 percent in terms of value, having run into some or the other trouble.
Dr. Arha explained that China owns the BRI and invests in poor economies, leading to debt traps. Whereas IMEC, from the start, involves rich, growing economies. This means that IMEC has more opportunities for cooperation among the stakeholders because it involves each one equally.
This is the reason Mr. Pant said that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described IMEC as “a beacon of cooperation, innovation, and shared progress” while U.S. President Joe Biden termed it as a game-changing investment.
In fact, a few days before the G20 summit, Mr. Modi shared a 12-point plan to uplift India-ASEAN ties and called for the establishment of a corridor linking Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Europe via India during the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta on September 7.
Joseph Kéchichian, senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, told The Epoch Times that the announcement of IMEC doesn't mean that the Chinese BRI is dead on arrival but rather that the new connectivity initiatives "must now take into account non-Chinese interests."
"As such, it is a collegial initiative that is quite different from the BRI as the latter confronts opposition in key European countries like Italy," said Mr. Kéchichian, adding that India, too, has serious differences with China and isn't a part of the BRI.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, during the just-concluded G20 summit, announced her country's surprising exit from the BRI, which Rome had joined in 2019 and which was expected to be renewed this year. Ms. Meloni, who has called IMEC the "Indo-Mediterranean bridge to the Atlantic," had expressed her opposition to BRI even during her summer 2022 election campaign.
However, Mr. Pant cautions to not give in to the temptation of looking at IMEC as a BRI competitor because the BRI is already happening while the IMEC is still a work in progress.
"Many nations participating in the IMEC are also part of the BRI, and whether it is the Haifa Port in Israel or Piraeus in Greece along the IMEC route, Chinese presence is all too visible," he said.
"What IMEC can certainly offer, however, is a more efficient and reliable connectivity alternative to nations who are concerned about Chinese monopolization of connectivity routes."
While a working group is tasked with laying out the details of the IMEC in the next two months, Dr. Arha believes that whether the "cost-effective trade network" comes to meeting its potential will be known in the next five years.
US Role and Project DesignThe India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor, in times of its full operation, is likely to act as a cost-effective and efficient bridge between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It is likely to include a rail link, an electricity cable, a hydrogen pipeline and a high-speed data cable.
This will help the oil-dependent Gulf countries to diversify their economies, will create political and social connectivity for Israel and help Europe to access India and the Indo-Pacific market, said experts.
“The India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor is a welcome initiative to integrate regions (South Asia, Middle East, Europe) that have had historical trade connections, have strong trade ties today, and have the potential to build even greater economic links in the future,” Aparna Pande, research fellow and director of Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute told The Epoch Times in an email.
Dr. Arha likens it to the "new age Indus River of commerce." From Dubai ports and through rail links across Jordan, IMEC will reach Israel. From Israel, the route can go to the Black Sea, Greece, Italy, and Mersea.
Revival of historical ties is another aspect considered important by K. Siddhartha, a strategic thinker who's particularly enthused by the revival of connectivity between India and Greece.
Mr. Pant believes that the corridor would place India strategically at the very core of trade flows from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Europe and help the world's most populated nation to overcome the connectivity bottlenecks that it has traditionally faced with hostile borders with Pakistan on the one hand and China on the other.
Ms. Pande said that the project is also strategic at its core and will ensure strong economic linkages between these regions that "will last generations."
"The United States is playing a behind-the-scenes role as all three regions are critical to American national interest, and the more these regions are integrated, the better it is for U.S. security,” she said.
The United States's role has been specifically about investment in the corridor and about facilitating leadership through connectivity. Dr. Arha described it as a direct outcome of the Abraham Accord.
"Indians and Americans have done their job. India can have joint investments with Riyadh in Saudi ports like India’s investment in the Israeli port of Haifa," said Dr. Arha, adding that in some places the corridor already exists, and in others, it needs more design and work.
"It’s already functioning at a young age in Saudi Arabia. However, the rail network is not developed to the degree commercially required. But Saudi has the money, and they can hire anyone," he said.
Mr. Kéchichian reiterated that Riyadh, which is the critical land bridge in the corridor, has already begun creating a first-rate infrastructure.
"One that builds on existing facilities, though what is significant with these new measures is the exponential growth envisaged," he said.
Far more important than these rail tracks, according to Mr. Kéchichian, is the infrastructure to move hydrogen, which will require special pipelines, and according to him, Saudi has substantial expertise in this area. Some rail lines are already existing.
"There are already a few railway lines that are quite popular, notably between Makkah and Madinah and between Khobar and Riyadh, even if contemplated freight lines (tracks) will add thousands of new miles to the network," said Kéchichian.
The digital corridor is another important aspect of this project and Dr. Arha said if "data is the new oil," the digital corridor will also leverage a lot of economy.
He emphasized that the "Blue-Raman Cable system," an intercontinental, submarine fiber-optic communications cable system that will connect France to India via Italy, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, and Oman, has already been proposed.
This submarine system consists of two cables: the Blue Submarine Cable System connecting Italy, France, Greece, and Israel, and the Raman Submarine Cable System connecting Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Oman and India.
Corridor and Changing GeopoliticsThe newly emerged and promising geopolitical equation between the Arab world and Israel because of the Abrahamic Accord and Middle East QUAD has brought forth much excitement about the opportunities offered by IMEC. The corridor, in turn, promises more geopolitical transformations in the future, according to experts.
Pant called it "transformative" because he said it treads on some serious geopolitical fault lines in the region and beyond."
"For countries in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa], it is about staying relevant in a changing geopolitical landscape. Saudi has big plans of transforming the entire region into the next Europe," Akhil Ramesh, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, told The Epoch Times in an email.
For such an ambitious project as IMEC, according to Ramesh, Saudi Arabia has to transform itself from an oil-producing nation into a well-diversified economy that becomes a vital node in advanced and critical technology value chains, particularly clean energy.
Dr. Arha likened it to Dubai turning into the "Singapore" of the Middle East.|
For India, this would mean increased trade with the Middle East and Europe and more markets for its energy giants.
"For European nations, it is diversification. They've [learned] their lessons from Russia-Ukraine," he said.
Reports have said that the Gulf Rail corridor will particularly help India as it'll cut the trade time between India and Europe by 40 percent.
Mr. Pant said that India has already indicated that it's not averse to "geopolitical reordering" as well as further acting as a land bridge between the eastern and western peripheries by incorporating Southeast Asia.
However, Mr. Ramesh cautioned that the political situation with Burma is conflicted, and an ASEAN-India trade deal did not work in India's favor, because it only shot up India's trade deficit with the region.
For Mr. Kéchichian, IMEC indicates that Saudi Arabia is emerging as a pivotal state in regional and international affairs, and its latest agreements with India, the United States, and the European Union will go a long way towards that end. He said Riyadh is hopeful for further developments.
"It may lead Riyadh to join the [Middle East] Quad though that process will require emendations as Saudi Arabia is anxious to protect its long-term interests in the Arab World, which will require a satisfactory solution to the Palestine Question. That process is slow and will take time," he said.
Identity and Historical LinksWhile China is trying to produce its own narrative of world chronological history motivated by its communist ideology, experts emphasized that IMEC can help preserve identities and historical linkages.
Mr. Siddhartha called it preserving "historical chronologies such as correction of dates and resetting them along with calendar and B.C needs international cooperation and consensus. IMEC will bring about a greater understanding through the exchange of scholarly consensus."
"Besides, it will also lead to a better spatial evaluation regarding their market, regarding the involved countries in terms of profit sharing and also preserving the identities of the countries concerned."
He also emphasized that to surmount social problems, each of the countries in the corridor will need to find a lifestyle for its citizens and minimize the kind of consumerism Chinese cheap products unleashed on the world.
"It's very much understandable that IMEC will not only be an economic corridor but spiritual and knowledge spirit as well, " he said, adding that the quality of social capital and employment generated through the corridor will be the key. He also focused on utilizing the corridor to tap into Africa's unexplored resources, particularly the genius of its indigenous wisdom.
Global manufacturing and supply chains dominated by China also needed more efficient and innovative alternatives, and this need was alleviated during the pandemic, according to Dr. Christopher Abraham, the CEO and head of the Dubai campus of the S.P. School of Global Management.
"The corridor will also help to alleviate Gulf countries' dependence on China for trade and investment, " he said.
Mr. Siddhartha envisions India in this role of building global social capital and said geopolitically, India has an advantage over China because it is more trusted than China in the region and can help IMEC build a "goodwill economic corridor."