The real icing of the G20 Summit was on the sidelines – in the declaration of the new India-Middle East-Europe-Economic Corridor (IMEC). This initiative, projected as pathbreaking, has the potential to develop a more efficient connectivity ecosystem.
It may also checkmate China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, more specifically, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Cpec), which have a direct bearing on India. It may sound discordant, but many such lofty projects have floundered after launch and our track-record in the infrastructure realm has been rather uninspiring. It is a must to analyse the issue objectively to ensure it does not end up as another missed opportunity.
Salience of connectivity corridors since ancient times, like the 5 BCE-dated Royal Road of Persian Empire and the Chinese Silk Roads have served to bind empires, spanning nations. The alignment of the proposed IMEC links India through a maritime route to Red Sea ports, freight corridor through Arabian Peninsula to Israel, going on to Europe. It brings the focus back to the Middle East, or West Asia, as a competitive connectivity hub. Iran and Turkiye are already pitching for the revival of a tweaked version of the ancient Persian Empire’s alignment, linking present-day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkiye.
These highways and maritime corridors have served multiple purposes as part of geo-strategic powerplay. Objectives have included: first, geo-economics for trade starting with barter for silk and spices; second, geo-theological for proselytization and proliferation of religions; and third, geo-political for tax collection, law enforcement and alliances. On the downside, there is the spread of pandemics, like smallpox in 6th CE and then the Black Plague. In present times, Covid-19 proliferated along these pathways and aerial corridors. Looting and plunder by Mongol hordes was also executed through these routes.
BRI and CPEC
Chinese, flush with funds and infrastructure-building expertise, launched the One Belt One Road (OBOR) in 2013. Stung by criticism, they had to repackage it as BRI in 2017, to make it sound more inclusive.
However, as it happens in translated Mandarin terminologies, ‘belt’ is terrestrial/surface link and ‘road’ is maritime corridor, spanning oceans, with a covert aim to have presence in 95 ports.
Chinese, as per internationally verified estimates, claim to have lifted approximately 700 million people above the poverty line by linking manufacturing hubs with markets. The Chinese model is being replicated in India with projects like the Golden Quadrilateral corridor and freight corridors.
The crucial challenge is time-bound execution, ensuring quality and minimising corruption. Climate change has inducted requirements of disaster resilience and green corridors. In our context, collapsing highways in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are a stark warning signal. China has also curated newer variants like Digital Silk Road, and space and health roads. Notwithstanding failed projects like Hambantota and a debilitating debt trap, the Chinese footprint is ominous across Africa.
Indian Track Record
Forays in connectivity corridors can be traced to the stalled Kaladan multi-modal project linking Sittwe sea port in Myanmar to Zokhawthar border town in Mizoram. Even the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway has been impacted by the disturbed internal situation in Myanmar. In contrast, China has operationalised the Kyaukphyu project and China-Myanmar corridor with connectivity and pipeline to Yunnan. China has also muscled its entry into the Chabahar port project in Iran. It is likely to take over a rail link to Hajigak in Afghanistan, usurping the old border road project of Zaranj-Delaram. Another much acclaimed project, International North-South Corridor (INST), linking Mumbai to St Petersburg through Bandar Abbas and Caspian Sea, has become a casualty of power politics. In sum, tardy project implementation coupled with instability in the extended neighbourhood has made it a litany of languishing, sub-optimal projects.
The Way Forward
IMEC is somewhat a belated outcome of the Build Back Better World (B3W) plan announced by US President Biden in 2020. It has leveraged initiatives of Abraham accord, I2U2 (India-Israel-USA-UAE) and India-USA-Saudi Arabia negotiations to put together this project. The transit time from Mumbai to Port Suez, using the clogged Suez route is approximately 11 days. IMEC is likely to take six days to Dammam/Jebel-Ali Red Sea ports. Added with one-two days of transhipment and rail freight to Haifa, it saves three-four days in transit and savings of 20-25% in cost.
The big advantage is that major building blocks of Indian and European legs (from Port Piraeus in Greece) are already in place. The main requirements are a rail link in Jordan, connecting it with the Saudi rail corridor (which is under modernisation) and Israel on the other end. The rail corridor is based on a uniform standard gauge, obviating transhipment. Saudi Arabia has committed $ 20 billion and rest should be possible through a multilateral lending forum. India has already acquired a presence in Haifa port and has shown interest in Port Piraeus, specially to keep the Chinese out.
Various stakeholders have their own interests, like the USA wanting to promote decoupling from the Chinese supply chain. India will have to step up its manufacturing base. Considering our domain competence, we should also bid for a role in rail infrastructure creation. Saudi and Israeli interests include resolution of Palestinian issue. Saudi Arabia also seeks guarantees against Iranian nuclear bomb. Concurrently, China has been actively promoting rapprochement between Iran and the Gulf states. In this age of multi-polarity, Gulf countries are playing a balancing game by joining Brics with China and Opec, plus with Russia besides IMEC. The challenge is to keep focus on our interests in this new complex game. For India, Russia, Iran and Central Asia remain strategically relevant. In our pluri-lateral template, it is not a zero-sum game of corridors but multiplicity of connectivity and redundancies, which is important to cater for strategic flux.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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