While Türkiye has announced the project cannot happen without its cooperation, experts also warn the new Western-led project could entail a number of logistical issues and comes amid escalating tensions between the US and China..
On September 9, amid the G20 leaders’ summit hosted in India, the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Germany, Italy, and the EU signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to construct an economic rail and shipping corridor linking Europe, the Middle East and India.
The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) is part of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) – a Western-led initiative to fund global infrastructure projects.
The PGII was initially a G7-led framework centering on infrastructure funding across the world, particularly in the Global South, explains Don McLain Gill, Lecturer at the Department of International Studies, De La Salle University in the Philippines.
“Along with the aim of narrowing down the wide global infrastructure development gap in a sustainable way, the PGII also largely focuses on four core areas: healthcare, digital connectivity, gender equality and equity, and climate and energy security,” Gills tells TRT World.
However, opinion is varied among analysts regarding the feasibility of the IMEC project.
Ali Bakir, Professor of international affairs at Qatar University and senior associate with Ibn Khaldon Center, contends “the initiative lacks substantive economic drivers, which prompts some nations to perceive it more as a political or ideological venture.”
However, Gill describes the IMEC as potentially being “pivotal in connecting India with the Middle East and Europe through a network of railways, ports, electricity cables, digital networks, and clean hydrogen pipeline.”
Overall he suggests the aim is to significantly slash transport costs, propelling a drive towards “inter-regional trade and commerce with transparent, equitable, and sustainable characteristics.”
The corridor is forecast to start in India, traversing through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Europe.
Nevertheless, Bakir notes the “geopolitical substratum” of the proposed corridor is “intricate.”
He believes there are a number of logistical issues, ranging from the route being extensive, costly and intersecting with territories that have had historical rivalries. The transportation platforms and overarching logistical complexities raise “legitimate concerns about its viability.”
Amid established routes like the Suez Canal, Bakir perceives the IMEC would appear to intersect and possibly undercut them, calling it “counterproductive, potentially fragmenting the regional economies rather than fostering cohesion.”
The security-related logistics, he suggests could entail “an insurmountable challenge,” highlighting how the Hormuz strait – located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman – is a “critical chokepoint” and “would be under the Iranian influence, especially in times of tensions or crisis.”
Nevertheless, Gill suggests that IMEC’s diverse membership could potentially cater for the international community’s wide-ranging interests.
The project is expected to have two corridors – an Eastern one, connecting India to East Asia and the Middle East, and – a Northern corridor, uniting West Asia and the Middle East to Europe.
Türkiye’s view on IMEC
Nevertheless, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed back against the project, announcing it would not happen without cooperation from Türkiye – as the most suitable pathway starts from East moving West and passing through Türkiye.
“We say that there is no corridor without Türkiye,” Erdogan told the press while heading to a G20 summit on 11 September, while underscoring the nation’s “important production and trade base”.
Bakir suggests Türkiye’s omission, as a pivotal non-oil economy in the Middle East “raises eyebrows.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan also raised questions concerning the IMEC project.
“When we look at the project that started in India and was recently signed at the G20, experts have doubts about its primary purpose, rationality and efficiency, ” said Fidan, outlining potential “geostrategic concerns.”
The Foreign Minister added the Iraq Development Road Project, dubbed the Iraqi Silk Road, which Türkiye welcomes was broached during Erdogan’s meeting at the recent G20 Leaders Summit.
Bakir tells TRT World that “The nation’s (Türkiye’s) advanced infrastructure, critical connectivity to Europe, and regional influence would naturally position it as a key player in any integrative economic project in the region,”
He adds that the IMEC project has led to speculation regarding “the very essence and objectives of the initiative.”
Beyond potentially strengthening global supply chains, Gill holds that the IMEC’s objective is to “serve as a more concrete and transparent alternative to the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” amid challenges ranging from debt sustainability issues, project cancellations, to the changing perception of Chinese businesses towards the BRI.
Nevertheless, Chinese reports perceive the US is seeking to “squeeze China’s influence out of the Middle East and relevant regions by building large economic corridors as a counterweight to the BRI.”
Bakir considers the IMEC a “strategic move in the larger chessboard of global geopolitics, with nations vying for influence and connectivity. However, sensibly, it would not stand a chance vs (the) BRI.”.
In addition to the IMEC and the BRI, there is also the North–South Corridor, described as a “commercial transport network,” potentially connecting India, Iran and Russia, amid suggestions that it may offer a pathway for Moscow to transport commerce with more ease.
However, a month before the third BRI conference this year in October and in light of IMEC’s establishment and geopolitical dimension, Gill describes China’s increasing strategic footprint across Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
He suggests it is fostering “uncertainties towards the maintenance of the international rules-based order, particularly in the realm of transparent and equitable economic cooperation”.
US and China tensions
Gill argues from a US-perspective that China’s “expanding economic clout” in the MENA is a cause of concern regarding its status as a traditional partner in the region.
On the sidelines of the G20 Summit, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning confirmed Premier Li Qiang held a brief conversation with US President Biden.
“Premier Li stressed that China’s development is an opportunity, not a challenge, to the US and the two countries should step up exchanges. President Biden said that the US hopes to see China’s economy growing and will not hurt its growth,” said Ning.
According to Gill, “while Beijing still has a long way to go to position itself as the region’s security provider, its economic engagements continue to surpass that of the US.”
Despite previous efforts in June by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a state visit to China to ease hostilities amid what he called “candid, substantive, and constructive” discussions, the IMEC project was announced amid heightened tensions between both superpowers.
“The US and China are in a new cold war,” Zeno Leoni, Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London tells TRT World.
“In a globalised order, however, the clash between US and Chinese spheres of influence happens through international regimes, regulations, and procurement,” says Leoni, referencing the case of AUKUS – a trilateral security pact between the US, UK and Australia, adding, “Others talk of weaponized interdependence.”
In the South Asian region, Gill contends that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) still poses a challenge to India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as it traverses through Pakistan-administered Kashmir in a manner that is viewed as illegitimate.
Noting the “historically complex dynamics surrounding Israel and its neighbouring states,” Bakir suggests “another interpretive lens views the initiative as an avenue to integrate Israel into the region, solidify the normalisation processes with it, and sustain its normalised presence, anchoring its position in regional economic partnerships.”
Amid what some analysts perceive as a global shift to the international order, some reports indicate India is expected to reap IMEC’s strategic and economic benefits. Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the project would foster cooperation, innovation, and development among participating IMEC nations.
On the sidelines of the G-20 summit, US President Joe Biden said the corridor would deepen energy trade and energy exports, but warned the world stands at “an inflection point in history” regarding how decisions taken today “affect the course of our future.”
However, amid what has been described as an evolving geopolitical landscape, not all analysts agree with this reading.
“The US has been upset with how the liberal order worked for Washington in the last 20 years. This frustration has emerged since Obama, but more explicitly with Trump. The Biden administration has made finding a solution to this problem its mission,” Leoni argues.
“The Biden administration is seeking to reform the liberal order by creating a new layer or more binding alliances to contain the erosion of US influence by China among US allies,” he adds.
Leoni views similarities to other Western-led initiatives, arguing the PGII is among a number of initiatives with a “similar logic.”
He notes the roles of AUKUS, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD or QSD) – an informal strategic forum upheld through summits, informational exchanges and military drills among the US, Japan, Australia, and India and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) a group of 13 members including the US, Japan, India, South Korea and Australia and regarded among some as a strategy to rebalance Asia, as fundamental examples of such alliances.
In Saudi Arabia, where the corridor is expected to pass through the Haradh district, Prince Mohammed bin Salman said it would boost railway networks and infrastructure and drive business opportunities.
Could BRI partners pivot?
Some nations also appear to be weighing up the decision to potentially sever ties when it comes to the BRI.
Originally Italy was one of the first G7 nations to join the largest global infrastructure project – the BRI in 2019. However, Italy could reverse its decision under the right-wing government of Premier Giorgia Meloni, quitting the BRI and pushing for a strategic partnership with China that was first signed back in 2004.
According to Mao, the BRI, first proposed a decade ago, has emerged as an “attractive international public good. More than 150 countries have already joined the BRI, which has brought tangible benefits to the people of participating countries. It’s in the interest of all BRI partners to further unleash its potential for cooperation.”
Leoni argues that “one can say that there is not just a reform of the liberal order, but there also are direct pressures on governments.”
He believes it could be plausible that the US may have pressured Italy, although he describes Italy’s BRI MoU as less substantial and more “politically symbolic”.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen labelled the IMEC as a “green and digital bridge across continents and civilizations.”
Gill argues European nations are concerned by the long-term impact of deepening economic ties with Beijing amid what he calls “the lack of transparency and accountability in its international engagements.”
He also argues several nations have largely become dependent upon Chinese loans and funding, calling them “debt-ridden and in perilous conditions, such as Pakistan.”
Amid these concerns, he says the IMEC was established to represent the collective interests of its major stakeholders.
With the IMEC’s action plan expected to be unveiled over the next two months, if the project is fully materialised, some reports forecast it could slash the trade route by an estimated 40%.
Nevertheless, in addition to the IMEC, a number of other nations are pushing to unite the east and west regarding commerce.
Qatar, Iraq, the UAE and Türkiye are deep in negotiations to cooperate on the Iraq Development Road initiative, regarded as an alternative project that is expected to launch in the forthcoming months.