The US, together with a consortium of nations including India and the EU, has announced the initiation of the India-Middle East-European Economic Corridor (Imec), the latest endeavor in its global infrastructure development strategy to counter Chinese influence.
By Scott RITTER
During the recent G20 summit, the governments of India, the US, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, Italy and the EU unveiled Imec, aimed at bolstering economic development, connectivity and economic integration between Asia, the Mideast Gulf and Europe. As things stand, Imec is merely a concept, outlined in a brief memorandum of understanding (MOU) that is long on intent and short on details. It said Imec would consist of two distinct corridors - an eastern corridor linking India to the Mideast Gulf, and a northern corridor connecting the Gulf to Europe. The northern corridor is envisioned to include a railway network that will facilitate cross-border ship-to-rail transportation. The two corridors, once completed, would connect India to Europe through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Greece.
A White House press release tried to manage expectations, stating that the MOU was "the result of initial consultations," which set forth "political commitments of the participants and does not create rights or obligations under international law." The participating countries "intend to meet within the next 60 days to develop and commit to an action plan with relevant timetables," the statement added.
Nevertheless, expectations for Imec run high. The White House statement observed that Imec aimed "to usher in a new era of connectivity with a railway, linked through ports connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia," which would "facilitate the development and export of clean energy; lay undersea cables and link energy grids and telecommunication lines to expand reliable access to electricity; enable innovation of advanced clean energy technology; and connect communities to secure and stable internet," all the while "driving existing trade and manufacturing, and strengthening food security and supply chains."
In a ceremony after the MOU was signed, US President Joe Biden observed that Imec would offer "endless opportunities" for the countries involved and would "contribute to a more stable and prosperous Middle East." European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also expressed optimism about the project, declaring that "this is nothing less than historic. It will be the most direct connection to date between India, the Gulf and Europe." She added that Imec "is a green and digital bridge across continents and civilizations" that would make trade between India and Europe 40% faster.
The roots of Imec are found in the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), a US-led initiative by G7 countries to fund infrastructure projects in developing nations that was announced at the 2022 G7 summit. The PGII sought to mobilize hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure financing to deliver energy, physical, digital, health and climate-resilient infrastructure. At their 2023 summit, G7 leaders reaffirmed their commitment to find new opportunities to implement PGII by attracting major investors to meet global demand for high-quality infrastructure financing in low- and middle-income countries. Imec represents a major step toward implementing this commitment.
On paper, Imec looks impressive, especially from the perspective of meeting climate change goals related to reducing carbon emissions. The corridor, when completed, will enhance electric and digital connectivity, as well as pipelines for clean hydrogen export. Another goal of Imec is increased economic efficiency between the participating nations. This would enhance employment opportunities, while contributing to the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions, transforming the global economic landscape through the seamless integration of Asian, European and Middle Eastern markets - all with an eye on environmental, social and governance impacts that align participating nations with sustainable development goals.
One of the more interesting features is the inclusion of Israel as a participating nation. Normally, any major project premised on the notion of Israeli-Arab cooperation would be destined for the trash bin. But recent advances by the US toward normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia bode well for Imec and, if implemented, would represent a historic shift in the dynamics of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Piggybacking on China
Imec represents a direct challenge to China's decades-old Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in which more than $1 trillion has been expended over the course of the past decade to expand Chinese influence across Asia, Africa and Europe. The fact that both the US and India are backing Imec reflects the concern both nations share about the growing global economic clout of China, and the need to develop alternative development projects capable of competing with the Chinese.
But there is a fly in the ointment, so to speak, regarding the ambitions of Imec when it comes to beating the Chinese - Imec will be piggybacking off existing Chinese BRI projects in some key areas. Forget, for a moment, that cross-border infrastructure development projects in the Arabian Peninsula have a poor track record in connecting ambition with reality - a planned rail network connecting the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council remains incomplete more than a decade after it was announced with great fanfare. China has played a key role in building out rail capacity in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, implementing multibillion-dollar railroad construction programs in recent years.
Imec faces similar contradictory problems regarding two of the major ports envisioned to feature in its connectivity scheme - Haifa in Israel and Piraeus in Greece. In 2021, Israel opened a new $1.7 billion port in Haifa, built and operated by the Shanghai International Port Group. And since 2019, China and Greece have been implementing a €600 million ($636 million) project at Greece's largest port, Piraeus, which has been overseen by China's Cosco Shipping as part of China's BRI-driven initiative to boost trade between Asia and Europe.
In many ways, Imec mirrors the experience of another PGII project announced by President Biden at the 2023 G20 summit: The rehabilitation of the Lobito Corridor, a 1,300 kilometer Angolan railway that connects with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. The Lobito Corridor piggybacks off the existing Benguela corridor, which between 2006 and 2014 was rehabilitated by a subsidiary of the China Railway Construction Corp. What distinguishes the US and EU approach from that of the Chinese, Helaina Matza, acting special coordinator for PGII at the State Department, recently said, is that their investments in the Lobito Corridor are done "in a meaningful way... that supports our values and our objectives, which includes supporting democracies." The Chinese, on the other hand, operate with little rhetorical fanfare or associated "values" agenda.