IMEC – Launching a geo-strategic chess game, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) led by the U.S. aims to redefine trade routes and political alliances.
An important realization of US and its allies has been that if they needed to recapture the lost influence in Europe, Africa and Latin America then they would have to quickly conjure a counter to $ 1 trillion-dollar infrastructural enterprise of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China that has integrated Asia, Europe and Africa in a manner that could see an increase in global trade by $ 7.1 trillion every year by 2040.
Ever since China’s President Xi Jinping shared his vision of one belt and one road from Kazakhistan’s capital, Astana, in 2013, the middle kingdom has been transformed into a superpower with its footprint in more than 150 countries. BRI has also seen China build roads, ports and rail infrastructure in countries where none existed and also rebuilding and reviving land routes between the countries. In the process, China, has transferred billions of dollars to participating countries in different continents thereby building equity and influence. In the last 10 years of its existence, China has faced opposition from US and many other countries that have issues with the way they allegedly “entrap countries in debt’- an allegation furiously denied by Beijing. Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy has been given as a prime example of this flawed funding arrangement, but experts disagree with this criticism and claim that Chinese banks have rescheduled the debt and have not taken over any assets abroad.
Such criticism, often misplaced, by powerful western media has blighted the BRI giving legitimacy to the objections raised by the US and India that the Chinese project’s funding to recipient countries is opaque and encourages corrupt practices. Expectedly, US that endeavors to be the guardian of the rules-based order shows discomfort with Beijing’s project and its funding. Seeing the efficacy of BRI, US is obsessed about reining in China and is trying to summon energy, ideas and possibly finances to build something bigger, better that weans away those that may have got enticed by the Chinese project. Now US have something to crow about. 8 countries led by the United States of America- all belonging to the G20 group of countries- have decided to create a India- MiddleEast- Europe Economic corridor or IMEC. This is a big vision.
Ambitious in conception, this geography defying agreement signed at the sideline of the G20 summit in Delhi, is a land, ship, and railroad corridor that has two components to it. First, a land sea corridor that will link India to Saudi Arabian Peninsula and the second corridor that will join Middle-East to countries of Europe that included Italy, France and Germany with railroad and ships. At the face of it this corridor has two purposes- to challenge BRI and also to severe links between Europe with Russia by integrating parts of Europe with Middle-East and South Asia. However, the corridor is being read differently by US allies like Turkey and Egypt as it would contribute to shifting the traditional shipping lanes that are used for trading. The worst fears are being expressed by the owner of the Suez Canal, Egypt, which apprehends major losses as the new IMEC corridor proposes to bypass it and endeavors to cut shipping time by 40. Similarly, Turkey is very upset with IMEC with its President Reccep Erdogan saying that there can be no corridor without his country.
The IMEC is premised on the changes that are conceived in the politics of Middle-East. US, which is driving the economic corridor is working towards a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Restoration of ties would require moving many pieces in this complex jig saw puzzle of the region. The most important would be how will Israel, which has driven Palestinians into oblivion will give them space and dignity? Will Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s aggressive right-wing following agree to any accommodation to the Palestinians? During his recent trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Israeli PM spoke trenchantly against Iran to an empty hall to shore up support of his followers back home. While promising good news on Saudi Arabia, he . Visibly, the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been sealed. Even Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, in a rare interview to Fox news smilingly said that the two countries were close t o an agreement. The biggest gainer would be US as its President Joe Biden is desperate to show an agreement between two hostile countries- Saudi Arabia and Israel- that also looks after the interests of a disenfranchised people- Palestinians.
US would have not just agreed to the demands of Saudi Arabia for nuclear power, but also a lot more in terms of how it accommodates its interests in the region. Ever since President Biden came to power, he had strained relations with Saudi Arabia and its controversial Prince after he promised to treat him like a “pariah” after how journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Turkey. It was with some efforts that the two leaders shook hands together at the Delhi G20 summit.
IMEC that makes Saudi Arabia its hub by linking with India, on one hand, and cutting through Jordan to reach out to Israel to head towards Greece, France and beyond will coincidentally build on the recent engagements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the leaders of these countries. Besides, Israel and its PM Netanyahu, Indian PM has done well to build ties with Saudi Arabia and its charismatic Prince. Also, he made it a point to travel to Greece and also enjoys good relationship with Italian leader, Giorgia Meloni. Recently, Italy got out of BRI and now it will join the IMEC.
Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is giving an impression of being persuaded by the US, what is not clear is what happens to the growing warmth between Saudi Arabia, China and Russia. Last December, the Chinese brokered a sensational deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is a pathbreaking move as it helps Riyadh to ride out of a bloody war in Yemen with the Houthi tribals. Due to this agreement, a Houthi delegation was in Riyadh recently to build peace. This is extraordinary and would not have been achieved without the Iranians coming to the rescue of Saudis.
Also, Saudis have benefited tremendously from the Ukraine war as Russia helped in keeping the price of oil higher and its production lower. This was done despite US pleading with Saudis to do just the opposite- oil production higher and its price lower. Due to this manipulation, Saudis energy company, Aramco, earned an unprecedented windfall of $151 billion last year. The earnings from oil will help Saudis to not just fund their future cities- Neom, but also this corridor.
The only big question is- can Saudis ride out this US brokered arrangement without breaking off with China and Russia? Also, will IMEC see the light of the day or die like many projects that countries announce from time to time.