The Platform

BrendenReis10/DeviantArt; Photo illustration by John Lyman

The success of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) hinges on its ability to catch up to and exceed the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

At the G20 Summit convened in the historic city of New Delhi, a groundbreaking economic initiative was unveiled: the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). Orchestrated by an alliance of nations, including France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, along with the European Commission, IMEC is a visionary project aimed at fortifying economic and regional cooperation. By establishing a comprehensive network of rail and maritime routes that stretch from the vibrant landscapes of India to the dynamic heart of the Middle East, the endeavor aspires to link cultures and economies across a vast expanse.

The nations at the helm of this initiative represent not merely a significant portion of the world’s populace, at 40 percent, but also command an equally substantial share of its economic output, accounting for approximately half of the global GDP. This strategic venture further cements the status of the Saudi Arabian and Emirati seaports, roads, and logistics hubs as crucial epicenters of international trade, thereby reinforcing their stature as indispensable vertices in the global trade network.

The diplomatic rhetoric from India’s foreign ministry has been resolute, with pronouncements heralding the IMEC as a significant stride forward in fostering India-UAE economic relations. The manifestation of this rhetoric was evident in the recent trade agreement signed between India and the UAE during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit—a visit that coincided with a period of heightened maritime insecurity, as the Houthi movement in Yemen initiated a series of assaults on Red Sea commercial vessels. These actions, purportedly a reprisal for Israeli military operations in Gaza, underscore the vulnerability of sea-based trade routes and highlight the importance of IMEC as an alternative vector for economic cooperation. Amidst this backdrop of regional tumult, Modi’s engagements were manifold, including addressing a vast assembly of the Indian diaspora in Abu Dhabi and delivering a keynote at a Dubai summit. A cultural zenith was reached with the opening of the inaugural stone Hindu temple in the Middle East, signifying a profound cultural integration within Abu Dhabi.

The advent of the IMEC signifies more than an economic collaboration; it emerges as a counterbalance to the expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) spearheaded by China, thus heralding a shift towards enhanced multilateralism in global trade relations. The corridor aims to amplify India’s geopolitical leverage, effectively disrupting Pakistan’s longstanding position as the singular economic corridor within South Asia. The United States’ enthusiastic endorsement of IMEC underlines the strategic motives underpinning the project, notwithstanding the diplomatic subtleties involved. It’s an endeavor that emerged from the conceptual frameworks of the I2U2 Group, with ambitions that transcend mere economic linkages.

Prime Minister Modi has extolled the transcontinental corridor as a driver of sustainable development across the globe, while Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has acclaimed it as a conduit for green and digital connectivity. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared IMEC to be a historic undertaking in cooperative endeavors, signaling the West’s deep-seated interest in nurturing an economic counterweight to China. As articulated by an erstwhile Israeli official privy to the project’s inception, the unstated yet palpable objective of IMEC has been to provide a strategic counterpoint to China’s regional ambitions from its very outset.

The economic implications of IMEC for India are profound, with the potential to galvanize economic growth and job creation by stimulating investments and catalyzing commercial hubs. The corridor is poised to facilitate a seamless flow of goods from Mumbai to Jabel Ali to Riyadh, culminating at Piraeus, the primary maritime portal to Europe. The Port of Piraeus, nestled in the Saronic Gulf and presently under the aegis of the Chinese state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), stands as a testament to the strategic interests of middle powers in shaping the economic and political tapestry of the region.

This is further illustrated by Israel’s contributions to India in the form of police training, surveillance technology, and defense capabilities, with India emerging as the largest purchaser of Israeli-manufactured armaments. Simultaneously, Abu Dhabi has committed to channeling investment exceeding $100 billion into a spectrum of Indian sectors, thereby reinforcing the potential of the Indo-Abrahamic alliance. The United States perceives this alliance as an opportunity to enhance its strategic footprint in the region, operating under the doctrine of achieving greater impact with more efficient resource utilization. Moreover, the Abraham Accords of 2020 have facilitated India’s regional engagement, creating a more conducive environment for its strategic initiatives.

The IMEC has the potential to emerge as a strategic counterbalance to the Belt and Road Initiative, promising to slash transit times for goods by an impressive 40% and transportation costs by approximately 30%. This not only signifies a substantial shift in logistical economics but also introduces a competitive edge in the geopolitical theatre. While both initiatives share conceptual similarities in enhancing connectivity, the stark contrast lies in their temporal and financial scope. The BRI has a considerable lead, having already cemented its infrastructural footprint and operational presence. For the IMEC to assert itself as a viable alternative, it will require not just parallel operationalization but also a level of recognition that compels countries to pivot from the established BRI paradigm. The IMEC’s success hinges on its capacity to transcend being a mere conceptual alternative and becoming a tangible reality in the global infrastructure narrative.

Sunaina Rubab is a Researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) and studying at NUML Islamabad.