The Shadow of Conflict
Although Washington initiated discussions with regional partners about the concept of the IMEC project in January 2023, this project is considered part of a US-led effort known as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment (PGII).
After the Hamas’ multi-pronged terror attack on Israeli cities on October 7, the IMEC project’s progress became even more challenging than it was when initially announced. (PTI)
By Shiv Bhagwan Saharan
Amidst the Hamas-Israel war, it is important to understand that the regional geopolitical challenge of navigating the complex geopolitics of the Middle East has always been more significant.
After the Hamas’ multi-pronged terror attack on Israeli cities on October 7, the IMEC project’s progress became even more challenging than it was when initially announced. The recent outbreak of the Hamas-Israel war has cast a shadow of conflict over the ambitious IMEC project that was unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with United States President Biden, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi. This ambitious initiative also involved the participation of France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Germany, the UAE, and the European Union. While PM Modi stated, “This corridor will show a sustainable way to the whole world.” ‘This is a big deal,’ United States President Joe Biden said after the announcement, “This is a really big deal.”
Although Washington initiated discussions with regional partners about the concept of the IMEC project in January 2023, this project is considered part of a US-led effort known as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment (PGII). Thus, progress on this initiative gained momentum during the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, held in May 2023. During the summit, G7 leaders reaffirmed their commitment to identifying new opportunities for expanding the PGII.
Moreover, IMEC is a proposed strategic multi-modal economic corridor that aims to connect India to Europe via the Middle East using a network of shipping lanes, rail links, and roads. The primary aim of IMEC is to stimulate economic growth through improved connectivity and economic collaboration among India, the Middle East, and Europe, with a particular focus on strengthening manufacturing, ensuring food security, and optimizing supply chains. IMEC consists of two distinct corridors: the Eastern Corridor, connecting India to the Gulf region, and the Northern Corridor, linking the Gulf region to Europe. It features railway systems, intermodal transport networks, and road transportation routes. Countries along the railway route can explore the possibility of laying cables for electricity and digital connectivity, as well as a pipeline for exporting clean hydrogen. The project may also expand to include energy resource transportation through pipelines and data transmission via optical fiber. Also, this multi-modal route from Mumbai could potentially deliver Indian goods to the European mainland in as little as ten days, 40 percent faster than the maritime route via the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, the corridor design is envisaged as a “reliable and cost-effective cross-border ship-to-rail transit system, complementing the current maritime and road transport routes.
However, IMEC is also viewed as a strategic counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), offering India direct access to European markets and trade with the Middle Eastern countries. Recent conflicts in the Middle Eastern region, such as the Hamas-Israel conflict, could disrupt the project by causing regional instability and impacting shipping and trade routes. It also represents a shift in India’s geopolitical role in the Eurasian economic landscape. Congruently, it is clubbed to the 2020 diplomatic normalization between Modern Arab States, including the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel, known as the Abraham Accord. Additionally, IMEC is seen as an alternative commercial transportation route to the Chabahar-based International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC). Thus, according to a report in the Financial Times on September 17, Turkey is actively engaged in extensive talks with its regional partners regarding its proposed alternative to the IMEC.
Recently, President Biden tweeted that Hamas’s terror attack on Southern Israeli cities, which triggered the conflict, was aimed at disrupting the growing diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Also, he stated, “One of the reasons Hamas groups took action against Israel… they were aware that I was on the verge of engaging with the Saudis.”
While India should leverage its diplomatic influence to facilitate peace and dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, this approach can contribute to establishing a more stable environment for strengthening trade and regional investment in the Middle Eastern countries. However, the Hamas-Israel conflict depicts a significant challenge for the IMEC project. But, it’s not an insurmountable one. The conflict has heightened tensions and instability in the region, potentially discouraging regional investment and disrupting shipping and trade routes. Although thus far, the Indian government has several diplomatic options to lessen the war’s impact and ensure the project stays on course. For instance, India recently took a diplomatic stance to abstain from a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian truce between the two sides. Also, India reaffirmed its commitment to counter-terrorism, observance of humanitarian law, and a two-state solution to the Palestine issue.
Furthermore, India can make strategic investments in infrastructure development, such as constructing roads, railways, and ports, to bolster the logistical support for the IMEC project. This infrastructure development would reduce transportation costs and shorten transit times along the IMEC corridor, enhancing its efficiency.
Amidst the Hamas-Israel war, it is important to understand that the regional geopolitical challenge of navigating the complex geopolitics of the Middle East has always been more significant. Now, the situation has become very complex, especially with the escalation of the Hamas-Israel conflict and the dire conditions in Gaza, along with casualties of over 10,659 Palestinians, including 4,300 children, in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7, according to the health ministry. Securing aid has become increasingly difficult. Therefore, the diplomatic dialogue and negotiations required for a project of IMEC’s magnitude have grown considerably more turmoil. It is also too early to say what the future holds or what alternative options exist for the success of the IMEC project in the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict.
The writer is a Doctoral Candidate in Middle East Studies at the School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (India). @ShivBhagwan_JNU