The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

While announced with great fanfare at the G20 summit in India, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is nothing more than a PR exercise.

Connectivity corridors have grown beyond their original purpose of facilitating economic growth. Nowadays, they are the levers and pulleys of geopolitical influence, avenues for shaping alliances, strategic positioning, and global outreach. While Western media has often framed projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as debt traps, an escalating trend has emerged among global powers to counter such Chinese initiatives with analogous plans.

One prominent example is the Build Back Better World (B3W). Recently, at the G20 summit in India, representatives from India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, and the United States inked an agreement to lay the foundation for the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC).

Positioned as a bold blueprint for stimulating connectivity, economic integration, and regional development, IMEC stretches from Mumbai to the Greek port city of Piraeus. It incorporates both Eastern and Western corridors, connected through an intricate web of railway lines, ports, gas pipelines, digital infrastructure, and supply chains. Notably, the project aims to bypass the Suez Canal, a decision purported to catalyze trade, enhance connectivity, and underscore environmental priorities by reducing transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the celebratory narrative surrounding IMEC as a rival to BRI might be more spectacle than substance. The challenges associated with this endeavor are multifaceted and considerable. Firstly, the logistical intricacies are a Gordian Knot: goods are expected to be shipped from Mumbai to the UAE, transferred onto rail lines to Haifa, and then loaded onto another ship bound for Piraeus. Secondly, a significant portion of the existing infrastructure crucial for IMEC is already under Chinese control.

Even in the case of new construction, seamless integration with the Chinese-built infrastructure is imperative. For instance, key ports in Haifa and Piraeus are owned by Chinese entities like the Shanghai International Port Group and China COSCO Shipping, and Chinese corporations have their fingerprints on other projects in the Gulf.

Moreover, the underpinnings of IMEC are further weakened by regional politics. Turkey has already expressed its discontent, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declaring the corridor incomplete without Turkish involvement and proposing an alternative route through Iraq, facilitated by Qatar.

Furthermore, there exists a profound divergence in perspectives among the participating states. India views this project as a countermeasure to Chinese expansion, building on its previous initiatives like the North-South Corridor. For the European Union and the United States, IMEC serves as a mechanism for expediting diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, leaving the commitment to substantial financial investment ambiguous. Meanwhile, for the Gulf nations, the corridor is less an answer to BRI and more a vehicle for economic diversification.

In summary, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor presents a laudable vision for augmenting connectivity and fostering economic integration among Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. However, it’s embroiled in a complex web of logistical, infrastructural, and geopolitical challenges that cast doubt on its capacity to stand as an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative. It raises pertinent questions about the commitment level required from member states for successful realization. While the project is undeniably significant, its efficacy and ultimate success remain open questions that only time and evolving geopolitical landscapes will resolve.

Nauman Ali is currently associated with the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. His research areas include Great Power Politics, China, and the Asia Pacific.