IMEC: India and US-led Counter Initiative to BRI

The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) was inaugurated on Sept. 10, 2023, in conjunction with the 2023 G20 summit held in New Delhi. This initiative was jointly launched by the governments of India, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, Italy, and the European Union. The primary objective of this alliance is to bolster economic growth and development through the promotion of connectivity and collaboration among the regions of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Indeed, this development initiative is a response to apprehensions regarding the geopolitical ramifications linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

What it is?

The IMEC is composed of two distinct pathways: the East Corridor, linking India to the Middle East, and the Northern Corridor, connecting the Middle East to Europe. This expansive network incorporates a railway system, a hydrogen pipeline, and high-capacity optical fiber cables.

It supplements existing maritime and land-based transport routes, such as the Suez Canal, the North-South Transport Corridor, and China’s Silk Routes, thereby facilitating smooth transit between India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Europe. Given Indian Railways’ demonstrated proficiency in constructing railway networks in arid regions, it is poised to secure a significant portion of contracts for this proposed corridor.

What is the genesis of the IMEC concept?

The concept originated within the I2U2 group, a consortium comprising India, Israel, the UAE, and the USA. This consortium was formed in late 2021 with the primary objective of deliberating on strategic infrastructure initiatives in the Middle East. Furthermore, it was established to function as a counterbalance to the increasing influence of Beijing in the region.

According to Axios, the genesis of this innovative initiative transpired during deliberations held within the framework of I2U2 over the preceding 18 months. Notably, it was Israel that proposed the concept of interconnecting the region through railway networks. The formulation of this extensive infrastructure project can be attributed to India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval. Mr. Doval engaged in negotiations with his counterparts from other participating nations, notably holding discussions with the American National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, over the course of several months.

Any Benefits?

  • The initiative is anticipated to achieve a 40% reduction in the time required for transporting Indian goods to Europe. Additionally, it is expected to result in a 30% decrease in the cost of transporting Indian goods to Europe.
  • Conversely, the reduction in both time and cost is also foreseen for the transportation of European goods to India.
  • Member-states hold a positive outlook, envisioning improved logistical efficiencies, reduced business expenditures, and enhanced economic cohesion as potential outcomes.
  • Job creation is another anticipated benefit, offering opportunities for employment in the logistics and transportation sectors.
  • Furthermore, the initiative is poised to contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, aligning with sustainability goals.
  • Ultimately, this initiative aims to foster transformative integration across the regions of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.  

Is it a counter initiative to the BRI?

As this initiative bears resemblance to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and was introduced by nations opposed to China, it can be inferred that it represents a countermeasure to China’s BRI.

From a geopolitical perspective, India has expressed concerns and reservations about the BRI initiative, primarily due to the inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This apprehension arises from the fact that the CPEC passes through territory claimed by India but under Pakistani control, which India views as a violation of its sovereignty. Conversely, the Initiative, IMEC, offers the potential to enhance India’s connectivity with Europe and the Middle East without encountering territorial disputes. It also presents opportunities for India to engage in infrastructure development projects that align with its strategic interests and do not compromise its sovereignty.

Furthermore, this project garners substantial backing from the United States and the European Union, both of which perceive it as a means to counterbalance China’s growing influence within the region. The primary objective of the United States is to distance India from the sphere of influence of Russia and Iran as they had taken another plan of North South Corridor. The United States aims to uphold its regional presence as a stabilizing influence by engaging key players such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and other Gulf nations. This strategic endeavor aligns with the ‘Abraham Accords’ and the broader initiative known as I2U2.

Moreover, the Middle East holds a central part in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vision, prompting the White House to escalate its endeavors in the region in response to China’s expanding influence.

Notably, when this IMEC initiative was unveiled, China was conspicuously absent. It appears to be a well-defined strategy aimed at challenging China’s extensive Belt and Road infrastructure project, originally introduced in 2013 with the goal of interconnecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. Thus, it emerges as a deliberate countermeasure. In contrast, Italy, a prominent participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), recently withdrew its support from the BRI and instead opted to align with the IMEC.

Dr. Aluwaisheg, in his opinion piece for Arab News, emphasizes that this initiative elevates America’s presence in the region and reinforces its position as a global influencer. While discussions have centered on the compatibility between this new U.S.-led initiative and China’s existing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the region, viewed through the lens of the Gulf region, it presents a potential win-win-win scenario for China, the U.S., and the Gulf nations by leveraging synergies of cooperation and integration. The coexistence of these two endeavors in the region might also contribute to de-escalating tensions between the two superpowers, compelling them to seek peaceful competition, at least within this regional context.

The United States, facing diminished influence in the Asian region relative to China, has shifted its focus away from traditional military strategies towards economic statecraft. This approach involves strategic investments, economic engagement, and alliance-building as means to enhance its presence and standing in the region. Recognizing the importance of alliances and the potency of economic engagement, the United States seeks to project power and influence through economic means and collaborative partnerships, emphasizing cooperation and stability over conflict in this complex geopolitical landscape.

On the other hand, in response to the IMEC, the chinese media says it is a copy of BRI. Professor Ding Long, affiliated with the Middle East Institute at the Shanghai International Studies University, authored a widely circulated article within China’s social media sphere. Entitled “The Indo-European Economic Corridor won’t go far if it excludes China,” the article levied accusations against the United States for introducing political and security considerations into the realm of infrastructure development. According to Professor Ding, the United States, following its strategic withdrawal from the region, is endeavoring to reassert its influence in the Middle East. To achieve this objective, it is fostering exclusive, smaller multilateral frameworks such as the ‘QUAD,’ all aimed at directing attention toward infrastructure initiatives with the overarching goal of containing the influence of China, Russia, and Iran.

Hence, the IMEC initiative not only fosters economic growth and cooperation but also harbors geopolitical implications, as both the United States and India share a common interest in curbing China’s expansion.

[Photo by Dati Bendo / European Commission, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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