The geopolitics of trade corridors

Geopolitics, geoeconomics and geostrategy have always been closely intertwined. They all play interdependent, mutually supporting roles in global affairs. Historically, able statesmen have managed this trichotomy very deftly to create power, influence and wealth for their countries. Trade corridors or routes were an inevitable tool of their craft as they went about creating intercontinental, regional and bilateral connectivity and economic interdependencies. This led to the promotion of international relations, the creation of spheres of influence and the inevitable strategic reach. The British, Dutch, Portuguese, Spaniards, and French were all past masters of this art.
The 21st century is witnessing a strong revival of this age-old strategy of trade corridors and their attendant geopolitical and geostrategic ramifications. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) leads the way in this regard. Vast intercontinental, regional and bilateral networks of motorways, highways, airports, seaports, railways, oil and gas pipelines, industrial parks, special economic zones, power plants and other necessary infrastructure have created a fantastic new geo-economic model for the world to follow and emulate. In an essentially trilateral configuration, the BRI aims to connect global and regional mineral resources to industrial zones and onto markets; all with a back link to China.
The major relevant international trade corridors are the Chinese BRI, the US-led West’s Build Back Better World, (B3W), the International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC), and now the US-led West’s India-Middle East-Europe Trade Corridor (IMEETC). Both the B3W and the IMEETC have been conceived as a reaction to the Chinese BRI and thus lack originality and geo-economic credence; creating a well-connected, economically interdependent world appears to be incidental to their underlying cause.
The US global hegemony is under serious challenge by China’s phenomenal, irrepressible rise. The US has constantly struggled to somehow contain its expanding sphere of influence. To that end, it needs to counter the BRI too. The B3W was a project in the same spirit. It remains stillborn to date. Its proposed cost of a staggering $40 trillion was clearly beyond the combined economic capacity of the US and its coterie of allies. In any case, the BRI has already taken a head start on it and beaten it comprehensively in time, space and funding.
The INSTC, like the now proposed IMEETC, is a very complicated and complex trade corridor. It would link Russia to Iran through the Caspian Sea and then to India through the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. It requires multiple shifting of goods from trains to trucks to ships, back and forth, to make it a very cumbersome, costly and time-consuming enterprise. Not surprising that it has yet not taken off in real earnest and still has not found many takers along the route either. IMEETC will suffer from the same lethal multi-mode malady.
The IMEETC is the latest trade corridor to pop up from the G20 summit in India. It is, like its predecessors the B3W and the INSTC, a utopian, overly ambitious enterprise. Had this route been the most economical and viable one, the Britishers would have adopted it when they were ruling India, the Greater Middle East Region (GMER) and the seas and oceans. They did not. It is yet to be determined what outstanding advantages this new alignment will provide over the already existing and functional trade routes that link this region to Europe and the world; or is it just to occupy and deny critical strategic space on the Arabian Peninsula to the Chinese BRI and block its further expansion into the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Critically, the IMEETC suffers from a rather fatal flaw; it is based upon some outrageous assumptions. It presupposes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) essentially submitting to the Abraham Accords and recognising Israel. At what price? Reportedly, the Saudis have laid down the conditions for such an eventuality. They entail the application of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 which would have Israel go back to the pre-1967 Arab-Israel War international borders, vacate all occupied territories including the Golan Heights and the West Bank, allow an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as the capital. Furthermore, the Saudis are likely to ask for a formal, binding defence pact with the USA like the one it has with South Korea and Japan, supply of the latest military technology, weapon systems and equipment and provision of civil nuclear power technology and plants to name a few.
This portends comprehensively redefining and recasting the GMER’s geopolitics, upending its tenuous strategic balance and emphatically nullifying Israel’s overwhelming hegemony. A massive paradigm shift in the regional geopolitical environment will thus ensue. Some very sensitive and apparently no-go areas for the US-Israel Combine will need to be addressed. Is it also intended to reverse the ramifications of the recently revived KSA-Iran ties and Israel’s consequent isolation in the region? Is KSA essentially moving towards multi-alignment, maintaining strong defence relations with the US and booming economic ties with China, simultaneously? Any rapprochement between the KSA and Israel will have its inevitable implications for the Muslim world, too.
On the other hand, will the US-Israel Combine make fundamental changes to its longstanding policies on the Israel-Palestinian issue and the GMER at large? Do the economic benefits of the IMEETC overwhelm its geopolitical costs? Or is the IMEETC meant to essentially attain two objectives; pursue geopolitical objectives at the regional level and counter China’s BRI, simultaneously; the economic costs notwithstanding? Is the US-Israel Combine willing to pay the price? Will the influential Israel lobby in the US support it? How will the humungous chasm between the KSA and US-Israel Combine’s oft-stated positions on Palestine be bridged? Extensive and intensive negotiations on seemingly irreconcilable issues are bound to take up crucial time. Furthermore, possible Chinese responses to IMEETC have apparently not yet been factored in. All that makes the IMEETC quite implausible, for the moment.
So, how best can the US-led West and its allies now outdo this massive Chinese economic juggernaut or ominously, bring it to a halt?

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at and tweets @K846Im.

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