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Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan 

In a unipolar world that emerged following the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR in 1991, the balance of power remained tilted towards the West for more than three decades and the status of the USA as the only global super power remained unchallenged, and the US rightfully thought itself invincible. 

But, during this period, China quite imperceptibly took a giant leap forward in the economic field and rose to prominence as a formidable economic force without much publicity, and the US was taken off guard. The US realized the gravity of the situation only after China started spreading its economic tentacles across the world with its revolutionary economic program which was unfolded in the form of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. 

Before deliberating on the subject, I would like to explain the acronyms IMEC and BRI for the convenience of the valued readers. BRI as explained above, is rather a familiar term widely used since its launch in 2013 by China, but India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) is an altogether new term for the readers because this ambitious project has recently been launched on the eve of G20 summit meeting held in New Delhi on September 9, 2023 and attended by the US president Joe Biden, Indian prime minister Nerander Modi, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Muhammad bin Salman more famously known as MBS and heads of states/governments of France, Germany, the United Arab Emirate (UAE), the European Union (EU) and Italy.

IMEC vs BRI At a special event on the sidelines of the recently held G20 summit held in New Delhi as mentioned above, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed by the leaders of the above-mentioned countries to launch the ambitious project namely India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). The idea is a brainchild of India and the USA. Both have termed the launching of the project as a watershed moment for the economic growth of all those involved in the project. The project has been launched with the sole purpose to counter China’s Belt and Road Imitative (BRI) which has been constantly bothering both the US and India since its launch in 2013 for separate reasons specific to both the countries. 

The US considers BRI as a threat to its economic monopoly, thus ringing an alarm bell to ultimately put the ‘only super power status’ of the USA in jeopardy and the US painfully realizes this, whereas India has been opposing BRI due to its subsidiary project known as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Gilgit-Baltistan region which India considers as a disputed territory and also because India considers it as China’s pearl strategy to encircle India and enlarge its military presence in Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) using Gwadar Port. Moreover, India just can’t see economic development and prosperity in Pakistan. 

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by the participant countries is indicative of the fact that the member countries of IMEC are committed to work collectively to arrange necessary financing, chalk out new transit routes, work out technical designs and legal/regulatory standards so that the project could take off smoothly and expeditiously. The project aims to linking two continents together via sea routes/ports and railway networks and is a transformative integration of Asia, Middle East and Europe. The project envisages provision of facilities that include telecommunication, electricity and digital connectivity through laying cable network as well as a pipeline for hydrogen export. All this is being done to increase trade, enhance economic activity, generate jobs, reduce costs, lower greenhouse emissions and above all, secure supply chains. 

IMEC is an extension of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and investment (PGII) launched in June 2022 during G7 summit held in Germany. It comprises two separate corridors, the Eastern Corridor connecting India to Arabian Gulf/Middle East and the Northern Corridor connecting the Arabian Gulf/Middle East to Europe. The project aims at connecting both the continents making them commercial hubs and facilitate the export of clean energy, lay undersea cables and link energy grids and telecommunication lines and connect communities to a secure and more reliable internet. 

Having said all that, an objective comparison shows that BRI has a clear edge over IMEC. Firstly, BRI is a mature project and is at an advanced stage of development whereas IMEC is a new initiative with uncertainty surrounding its success. Secondly, BRI is a centrally focused/controlled project with unity of command controlling its operation whereas IMEC is a shared project by many countries with their own specific economic interests/agendas, thus lacking unity of command and control which is likely to impede the successful implementation of the project. Thirdly, BRI is spread over three continents involving more than 100 countries whereas IMEC is trying to spread its tentacles over two continents with much less number of countries in its fold. Fourthly, financing of the BRI is solely done by China that guarantees the success of the project whereas IMEC’s financing is yet to be arranged and is at the mercy of the participant countries. Fifthly, BRI has never limited its participants to any specific region or nation. Its clientele are spread across various continents. In contrast to that, IMEC is a nation/ region-specific project involving India, Gulf countries and some European countries; hence, much narrow in its scope. Lastly, commercial viability of BRI has been established beyond any shadow of doubt whereas in the case of IMEC what is more challenging is its doubtful commercial viability than its financing. Unless commercial viability of the project is established/guaranteed, member countries may not be willing to take the plunge and finance the project. Hence, future of the project is likely to remain in the doldrums and in all probability may not see the light of day. 

A very intriguing scenario is developing in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and the UAE caught in a dilemma with regard to making a choice between the US/India and China. This is going to be a crucial decision which will have far-reaching economic and political implications for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are standing at a crossroads of their relations with China and the US/India. For both of them it’s not going to be an easy decision to make. Chinese President Xi Jinping has already invited Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries during his visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 to join the BRI which is at its maturing stage and progressing successfully whereas IMEC is at its embryonic stage and its future is far from certain. So making a choice really makes a difficult proposition. 

All said and done, launching of IMEC seems to be a clear message from USA to China that China is treading on a rocky path and that it’s not going to be an easy walkover for China to replace it as a global economic giant because that would amount to implicitly allowing China becoming world super power which the US is determined not to cede to China so easily. With its feathers already ruffled by the de-dollarization campaign so aggressively launched by BRICS, a China-led block, the US wouldn’t hesitate to take any drastic action to save its global position as a super power without waiting for the axe to fall when push comes to shove.

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