The IMEC and the BRI: Friends or foes?
By Yasir Habib Khan  ·  2023-10-30  ·   Source: NO.44 NOVEMBER 2, 2023
Students test experimental samples at the China-Pakistan Joint Wheat Molecular Breeding International Lab at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, on October 19 (XINHUA)

In an attempt to parallel the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a China-proposed initiative to enhance global connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes that embodies inclusiveness, openness and shared dividends, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), announced at the Group of 20 (G20) Leaders' Event on Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on September 9, lacks the global aura, scale, resources and networks to meet the world's current and future needs.

Ridden with the spiraling sense of post-Cold War syndrome, bloc politics and divisions, IMEC sounds squeamish. Compared to the multi-faceted, tangible dimensions of the China-proposed initiative, which has been tested and proven with empirical benefits to its signatory countries, the IMEC has yet to get a head start. The BRI has been on the ground for years, but the IMEC, as of yet, exists only on paper.

Similar to the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework announced in May 2022, which aims to lift sustainability, inclusiveness, economic growth and competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific region but was touted as an all-too-obvious political publicity stunt, the IMEC also lacks a comprehensive connectivity framework to make things happen.

Developing focus 

The lack of consistency in the implementation of global economic policies has already drawn the ire of international players, especially those who are part of the U.S.-led frameworks.

There is a strong belief that with the change of command, the U.S. will change its economic strategies. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious major trade pact involving Indo-Pacific countries, was part of President Barack Obama's strategic pivot to Asia. Donald Trump, then, pulled the U.S. out of the trade pact in 2017, after it drew criticism from the protectionist end of the American political spectrum. No one knows what will happen to the IMEC once current U.S. President Joe Biden leaves office.

China, on the other hand, never claims that the BRI is a tool to challenge the economic world order. Rather, the BRI advocates a win-win situation for all.

With rising inflation, geopolitical disputes and energy crises seriously threatening the entire world, the international community needs to seek cooperation, not division. The IMEC, arguably driven more by geopolitical considerations rather than economic factors, might end up a non-starter.

Moreover, a notable feature of the BRI projects is the emphasis on channeling investment into developing and emerging economies, especially in regions like Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Countries like Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Ethiopia have been major recipients of the BRI's generosity, receiving substantial Chinese funding for infrastructure development. This has allowed the initiative to earn goodwill and political support from a large bloc of developing nations. 

The IMEC, on the other hand, lacks this kind of developing country focus. The proposed corridor connects India with the wealthy Gulf countries and major European economies only. This narrower geographical scope robs it of the developmental legitimacy and political appeal that the BRI enjoys in the developing world.

The West appears to be grappling with how to respond to China's ascendance on the global stage and the country's ambitious BRI. As a result, it seems they made the IMEC announcement to garner attention. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a speech at the annual Public Forum of the World Trade Organization in mid-September, voiced his disappointment regarding the recent G20 Summit's failure to effectively tackle critical global economic challenges. He underscored that despite India's diplomatic achievement in hosting the summit, it fell short in making substantial headway on crucial issues such as climate finance, the regulation of artificial intelligence, alleviating debt burdens in Africa and addressing extreme poverty.

The most obvious advantage the BRI enjoys over the IMEC is its massive head start and sweeping scale, as it was launched 10 years prior to the recently proposed IMEC. Ever since the initiative's launch in 2013, China has mobilized close to $1 trillion in investments across over 3,000 BRI-linked infrastructure projects ranging from ports, pipelines, highways, railways, power plants and other connectivity links. Over 150 countries have thus far signed up for BRI projects and funding agreements, drawn in by the promise and achievement of upgraded trade and transit networks. From the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to railways in Laos and highways in Montenegro, the BRI's tentacles stretch across vast swathes of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The mammoth scale and scope of BRI simply dwarfs the limited India-Gulf-Europe passage envisaged under the IMEC. 

Lao staff members perform on the first cross-border passenger train from Kunming in southwest China's Yunnan Province to the Lao capital of Vientiane on April 13 (XINHUA)

Multiple options 

A major limitation of the IMEC is its lack of overland transport links and cross-border connectivity. The BRI's great advantage lies in its extensive web of rail, road and pipeline corridors providing connectivity between China and its neighbors in South, Southeast and Central Asia.

Core BRI projects like the CPEC and the New Eurasian Land Bridge, connecting China to Europe and western Russia, consist of rail and road networks linking China with the Indian Ocean, Central Asia, Iran, Türkiye and beyond.

The IMEC, on the other hand, is limited to sea routes and port links between India, the Gulf countries and the European Mediterranean. The lack of overland transit options deprives it of the flexibility to move cargo, and political differences and conflicts can easily disrupt shipping lanes. The BRI's diverse mix of land and sea routes makes it more resilient. With greater access to trade hubs in the Eurasian hinterland, the BRI clearly dominates in terms of cross-border connectivity.

Moreover, the BRI's open and inclusive structure allows room for both U.S. allies and strategically important developing countries to reap its benefits. The IMEC lacks this kind of diverse and multilateral structure. It is clearly demarcated as a U.S.-led initiative aimed at countering China.

The choice of partners like India and Israel reveals the IMEC's focus on stitching together an anti-China bloc. This undermines its appeal to a wider array of countries. Its exclusion of notable players like Iran and Türkiye also erodes geographic integration.

Another major reason for the enthusiastic response to the BRI is that it addresses the pressing infrastructure and connectivity needs of emerging economies in regions such as Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. These developing countries have a real demand for the roads, railways, ports and power projects that China is constructing under the initiative. It fills a critical development gap. The IMEC does not address similar organic development needs beyond general trade facilitation.

But according to participants at a conference in China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region marking the 10th anniversary of the BRI in the second week of September, another perspective is that it's good for the BRI to have competition, and that more connectivity will benefit global trade. "Yeah, why not? Competition is good. The more, the better. We are (engaged) in most of them," said Khaled Al Jassim, a board member of the UAE's Fujairah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

But he did add that countries should not be forced to choose between the BRI and the IMEC, and should be able to join both if they desire to do so. The UAE is part of the BRI but is also a signatory to the IMEC, just like BRI participants Italy and Saudi Arabia. BR

The author is president of the Institute of International Relations & Media Research in Pakistan. The article is an edited version of an op-ed first published on cnfocus.com 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to zhaowei@cicgamericas.com 

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