Look out ‘Belt and Road’, there’s a ‘New Spice Route’ in town! Well, there might be. That depends if the declaration, made at the G20 in New Delhi, to build an India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) is more than a press release involving an acronym sounding like a multiplex cinema.

Last week this column argued that the Putin/Kim and Biden/Vietnam meetings were more important than the G20 summit. They were. However, the IMEC, if built, is part of the reason why.

The world is now deep into the multi-polar era. However, there are signs of a move towards a new form of bi-polar world, one in which multiple players will have serious influence. On one side is China, with Russia as its junior partner along with a bunch of down at the heel minor actors. On the other is the US, with numerous genuine allies, and some serious players prepared to partner with them. The weakness of the China bloc was seen in Kim’s trip to Russia which showed how much Pyongyang is hedging its bets, and in Biden’s visit to Vietnam which showed Hanoi’s anxiety about a China-dominated region.

This brings us to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the new kid in town. This month marks the tenth anniversary of President Xi’s speech in Kazakhstan titled, “Work together to Build the Silk Road Economic Belt” – a phrase which morphed into BRI.  At first the idea was geographically restricted and focussed on road connections to facilitate trade in regions near China. It soon grew to incorporate maritime and rail routes, pipelines, ports, and cyber connectivity.  A decade on, 154 countries have signed BRI deals with China, but among those who have not are the US, Canada, most of Western Europe, Australia, Japan, India, Israel, and Jordan.

At the Cornwall G7 in 2021, President Biden spoke about the need for countries to have an alternative to the BRI. And then went silent on the idea. That changed in New Delhi last week as the US, India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy, France, and the EU announced IMEC. Biden called it “a real big deal”. Not big enough to garner many headlines, but if it happens – he’s right. 

It was quickly dubbed ‘The New Spice Route’. The idea is to build two economic transit corridors totalling 3,000 miles. An eastern corridor will link India to the Arabian Gulf, and then a northern version will connect the Arabian Gulf to Europe. A dependable, smooth, and cost-effective flow of green hydrogen, data, goods and services will travel via road, rail, and ship from India to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, across the Mediterranean, on into Europe, and vice versa.

That, at least, is the theory. It’s not surprising the route avoids unstable countries such as Yemen, Syria and Lebanon all of which have close ties with Iran. The potential weak spot in the corridor is Jordan which shares borders with Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian West Bank. A decision would have to made on whether a new highway from the Jordanian capital of Amman to the Israeli port of Haifa which went through the West Bank, or around it. If the IMEC project gathers pace it will be another boost for the chances of a normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

The project will take years. The costs of building land links and port facilities able to quickly transfer huge quantities of goods to and from vehicles, will be enormous. Unless most products en route from India went to the Gulf via sea, then Iran would have a say in traffic across a land route. However, the IMAC countries say they mean business and have signed ‘Memorandums of Understanding’ committing them to meeting again within 60 days to flesh out details. 

The Americans have made it clear they view the project as a rival to the BRI, as indeed it could be, especially as many countries involved in the BRI are disillusioned with China’s commitments to them. But Washington knows that the coming version of the bi-polar world will be very different to the Cold War era because of globalisation and the rise of China. 

Unlike the Soviet Union then, China has things to offer countries other than the joys of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and five-year plans to produce tractors. As such, countries have more freedom of action to balance decisions and play both sides even as pressure grows to put more weight on one foot than the other. The outlines of two blocs will emerge, but there is scope for far more interaction between those in different blocs than there was during the Cold War. 

The G20 Summit was New Delhi’s coming out party where it demonstrated to the world what it is – a major power. The Moon landing a fortnight before the summit helped. In the previous bipolar world, India may have led the ‘Non-aligned Movement’ but it wasn’t able to be a serious influence on the two superpower’s behaviour. Now it can. The IMEC project will embed it more deeply in the Gulf, a region with which its bilateral trade is growing rapidly. This doesn’t really affect the US, but it does affect China, as would an alternative trade route.

If IMEC becomes reality, then more and more countries will have that alternative and could choose which foot to put more weight on, as in, which side to lean towards more. Countries such as….Vietnam. The Biden visit to Hanoi was about this bigger picture.

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