India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor a potential counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative

By Mayank Chhaya-

At the very least the India – Middle East – Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) as announced during the G20 summit in New Delhi today is an ambitious alternative vision to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) if not a clear strategic counter to it.

Led by the United States, the IMEC includes, the Governments of India, Saudi Arabia, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Germany, and Italy.

“The IMEC is expected to stimulate economic development through enhanced connectivity and economic integration between Asia, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe,” a White House statement said.

“The IMEC will be comprised of two separate corridors, the east corridor connecting India to the Arabian Gulf and the northern corridor connecting the Arabian Gulf to Europe. It will include a railway that, upon completion, will provide a reliable and cost-effective cross-border ship-to-rail transit network to supplement existing maritime and road transport routes – enabling goods and services to transit to, from, and between India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Europe,” it said.

“Along the railway route, the participants intend to enable the laying of cable for electricity and digital connectivity, as well as pipe for clean hydrogen export. This corridor will secure regional supply chains, increase trade accessibility, improve trade facilitation, and support an increased emphasis on environmental social, and government impacts,” the statement said.

The corridor is expected to increase efficiencies, reduce costs, enhance economic unity, generate jobs, and lower greenhouse gas emissions – – resulting in a transformative integration of Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

This Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) brings together a remarkably diverse group of nations whose global strategic and economic interests are not always necessarily aligned.

By some coincidence, the IMEC comes exactly a decade after China’s BRI was launched in 2013 with colossal infrastructure investments. Sometimes called the New Silk Road, the BRI involves 149 countries. The BRI is often viewed as a giant debt trap laid by China with the long-term purpose of leveraging the often-unmanageable debt on many of the countries to keep them subservient in Beijing’s global priorities. BRI contracts often allow China to demand repayment at any time thereby converting it into a tool to keep BRI countries in line over global issues such as Taiwan and even domestic ones like Tibet and the plight of the Uyghurs.

The IMEC will come up with an action plan in the next 60 days. At the launch in Delhi, Biden spoke of “endless opportunities” that the IMEC will create while “making it far easier to trade and export clean energy”. He also spoke about laying undersea cable that will connect communities via fast broadband internet. He said it would “contribute to a more stable and prosperous Middle East”.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called the IMEC as “nothing less than historic.” “It will be the most direct connection to date between India, the Arabian Gulf and Europe,” she said.

For President Biden the IMEC is as much about helping the regions in Asia strengthen their economies as it is about keeping them on the side of the U.S. as China increasingly flexes its muscles across Asia and Africa. Keeping Africa in sight, a trans-African corridor connecting the Congo, Zambia and Angola was also announced by the European Union and the U.S.

Although nobody said so in those specific terms, it is clear that the IMEC is also designed as a counter to China’s BRI. It is in that context that it is just as well that China’s President Xi Jinping did not attend the G20 summit. It would have been awkward for him to be excluded from the summit’s signature accomplishment in so much as it means that the IMEC has the potential to transform hundreds of millions of lives across India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Jordan, Italy, France and Germany.

In the immediate aftermath of the IMEC MoU what its funding mechanism will be, has not been specified. However, it is certain that the kind of coercive debt to fund model that China enforces will not be a part of the IMEC.

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