Will IMEC be a potential game-changer for India and South Asia?

For India, IMEC is a strategic move to lessen dependency on its traditional trading partners while opening up a horizon of opportunities in markets ranging from technology to energy. Also, India is poised to countervail growing Chinese influence in South Asia if successful implementation of IMEC becomes possible. 

Dr Koyel Basu Oct 13, 2023
Modi announcing India MIddle East Corridor at G20 (Photo: Twitter)

A lot of euphoria was generated on the sidelines of the G20 summit in September this year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the establishment of the India-Middle East European Economic Corridor (IMEC) which is being projected as the West's answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Apart from giving India a strategic edge in Europe and the Middle East, the IMEC is set to be a groundbreaking initiative backed by the US, especially since the latter finds itself almost cornered in parts of South Asia (especially after its embarrassing withdrawal of military troops from Afghanistan) in the face of China's overdrive to gain influence in the region through lucrative infrastructure and loan projects. Does this mean IMEC is only a move to counter China by the US and Europe backed by India for their own interests? To arrive at such a conclusion will be myopic. 

As an initiative, IMEC is intended to enhance connectivity and promote economic integration among South Asia, the Arabian Gulf and Europe. The establishment of an economic corridor culminated in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in New Delhi among the governments of India, the US, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany and Italy to create the IMEC to entail substantial infrastructure development such as ports, electricity cables, digital networks, and clean hydrogen pipelines. The proposal represents a multimodal transit corridor spanning nearly 5,000 km.  The entire growth story of Asia, especially South Asia, is set to change with IMEC with its potential to exert influence and attract investments in the region.

How will India benefit

For India, IMEC is a strategic move to lessen dependency on its traditional trading partners while opening up a horizon of opportunities in markets ranging from technology to energy. Also, India is poised to countervail growing Chinese influence in South Asia if successful implementation of IMEC becomes possible. China has successfully roped in many countries for BRI which passes through Gilgit-Balochistan region in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir apart from many other regional countries. China has also employed “debt-trap diplomacy” to corner India in South Asia with BRI, a policy of economic diplomacy by which it has made many countries heavily dependent on it including many Asian countries. China’s growing influence in the Middle East is a cause of concern not only to India but the US which wants to put down China at at any cost. Prime Minister Modi hailed IMEC as “a beacon of cooperation, innovation and shared progress charting a journey of shared aspirations and dreams.” (Source: ‘Trade or geopolitics? Aftab Alam, The Islan Online, https://island.lk/trade-or-geopolitics/)

The direct offshoot of IMEC for India is its potential to positively impact the growing Indian economy. Apart from magnifying India’s position as a logistical hub for the Middle East and Western Europe, the derivative benefits that can come to India are manifold. Exports from India will be streamlined. The corridor can also upgrade ties with Arab countries where there is a great Indian diaspora. Apart from this, economic corridors are robust gateways to pave the way for a new era of collaboration and shared growth just like the Silk Roads in the ancient past. (‘Analysis: Why India-Middle East-Europe is a Game Changer Economic Corridor?’,  Bibek Debroy & Aditya Sinha, The NDTV, https://www.ndtv.com/opinion/analysis-why-india-middle-east-europe-economic-corridor-is-a-gamechanger-4389545). The larger narrative lies in this historical relevance of trade routes signifying not only exchange of goods but ideas and culture. The question that arises though is do globalization and geopolitics converge or they are apparently antithetical to each other.

Challenges to IMEC

Though IMEC has strong financial backers like the US and the European Union, there is still no clear enunciation on who is going to foot the bill. Cynics question the sources of funding for the project. For instance, Vivian Fernandes in BQ Prime pointed out, “Is the transcontinental transport corridor between India, the Middle East and Europe an idea that will acquire shape and substance in the foreseeable future, or will it fizzle out like other such grand announcements?” Financing is a thorny issue on which the MoU is silent. According to the initial estimate, the project would require around US $20 billion which would have to be generated by the participating nations. 

Another significant challenge to the successful operationalization of IMEC is that all countries that forged support for it are not necessarily against China and BRI. China has very close ties with some Middle Eastern countries and is investing heavily there. Besides, the recent flare-up in the Arab-Israeli conflict might leave its repercussions on IMEC’s implementation. So, the US and India’s plans to create an alternative influence centre through IMEC may not work out in the end. This sounds pessimistic but IMEC has all the possibilities of a successful venture although its success hinges on a few vital factors.

However, the harbinger of hope here is India itself. It can be viable only if India can work its way up the diplomatic dynamics manifested in China’s overtures and successfully challenge the moves against it in South Asia and in derailing the IMEC. As the global landscape shifts, IMEC has the potential to change South Asian and regional dynamics provided India plays the game with the right focus and intent. 

(The writer, whose research interests include human rights and gender inequity, particularly in South Asia, is  Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Jangipur College, Kalyani University, West Bengal. Views are personal. She can be reached at koyelbasu1979@gmail.com.)

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