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IMEC will fail to rival China Silk Road by neglecting key developing nations

September 20, 2023 at 4:06 pm

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (L), India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) and US President Joe Biden attend a session as part of the G20 Leaders’ Summit at the Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi on 9 September, 2023 [EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

In this era of grand projects and geopolitical interconnectedness, it was no surprise, this month, when a memorandum of understanding was announced on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi that numerous nations will work to establish a vast ship and rail corridor, stretching from India across the Arabian Sea to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, then to Europe.

Coming after months of talks behind the scenes and involving leaders such as US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the corridor will reportedly include undersea cables, energy transport infrastructure and railway systems.

Since the very moment of its announcement, it was praised not just by India and the Arab Gulf states, but also by the US and European Union (EU), both of which gave the project their backing. European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, hailed it as “a green and digital bridge across continents and civilisations”, and President Joe Biden said it would offer “endless opportunities” and will “contribute to a more stable and prosperous Middle East”.

Their support for such a project likely stretches over a series of more strategic matters, such as the fostering of cooperation between Israel and Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, to serve as an encouragement of finally establishing a normalisation deal between Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

Most prominently, though, the Atlanticist establishment’s backing of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) has predictably positioned it as a potential rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), serving as a counter to Beijing’s ambitions and increasing influence in the Middle East and South Asia, amid a seeming decline in the Western power bloc’s influence.

If that is, indeed, the aim, or at least one of the policy goals in supporting the Corridor, then a significant disappointment likely lies in wait for the West as the IMEC project contains several potentially major strategic mistakes.

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At first glance, the corridor does indeed connect South Asia with the Arabian Gulf and to Europe, raising the potential for trade links and profit exponentially. As the hypothetical maritime route sets off from India’s Mumbai, however, it entirely bypasses any of the ports along the coast of Pakistan.

After the proposed rail route across the Arabian Peninsula, up through Jordan and then to Haifa, the maritime route then continues to Greece’s Piraeus, along with reportedly Italy and France. That again completely bypasses another potentially profitable stop at any of Turkiye’s major Mediterranean ports.

In neglecting important stops such as Pakistan’s Karachi or Gwadar and Turkiye’s Izmir or Mersin, the proposed corridor contains major flaws and gaps which would leave it vulnerable to further exploitation from Beijing and even Moscow.

Misgivings over Islamabad and Ankara’s involvement are somewhat understandable from both a logistical and geopolitical perspective, of course. It remains in question whether Pakistan currently possesses the readiness and means to fulfil the required work – what kind of work specifically, we have not yet been told – to hold up its hypothetical side of the Corridor, as it is mired in its own myriad of leadership and financial crises at the present time.

Geopolitically, Pakistan’s involvement would also prove difficult regarding India’s cooperation as the neighbouring rivals continue to be at odds with each other. Turkiye’s part in the Corridor could similarly reignite tensions with Greece and its role, as well as other European countries that have experienced friction with Turkiye and its increasingly independent foreign policy over the past decade.

Despite those considerations, it is becoming progressively clear that the planners and backers of the IMEC project, especially Western nations, are missing primarily two enormous opportunities in leaving those countries out in the cold.

Firstly, by involving Pakistan in the initiative, a significant step in the path toward reconciliation and improved ties with India could have been achieved. Furthermore, involving Turkiye would have strengthened its ties and interdependence with Israel and Greece, potentially preventing a series of diplomatic fallouts in future tensions.

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Months of negotiations and assurances would have had to have taken place for either of those to happen, undoubtedly, and some concessions may have been required from both sides, but it could have resulted in lucrative dividends for most players and would certainly have been a crowning achievement for the Biden administration.

Secondly, if IMEC were to involve nations such as Pakistan and Turkiye, it would serve to undermine the efforts of China and its BRI project, as well as Russia’s standing in the region. Initiatives such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – already on its knees after a few years of delays, security concerns, and finance issues – and Russia’s investments and energy projects in Turkiye could, therefore, be countered and rivalled.

At the current stage, however, the isolation has only served to maintain and expand the current geopolitical divide, with Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, slamming the proposed Corridor plans by saying that it “will not work” as it bypasses a major regional hub such as Turkiye.

Perhaps it is not a concern of IMEC’s Western backers to foster unity and heal geopolitical rivalries, and perhaps it is in their interests to ensure such divisions are maintained, as many players in the Global South believe that to be the case.

There is a chance, after all, that the project could be just another one of the many grand proposals over the years that ignited significant debate but, in actuality, failed to materialise, such as the EastMed pipeline between Israel, Cyprus and Greece. We have yet to see how this project progresses.

Either way, if the proposed Corridor is part of a strategic attempt to woo the Global South, co-opt its economic potential and deflect other powers away from hegemonic influence, then it is making a fatal strategic mistake in neglecting such key regional players.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.