The geopolitics of trade corridors

In the space factor, China and its BRI are well ahead of the pack. They are playing a cardinal role in uplifting the global South, creating much needed intercontinental and regional connectivity through a vast array of infrastructure and consequent economic opportunities. The BRI is already touching about 155 countries, has linked China to western Europe, South East Asia, South Asia, the CARs, the GMER and is now poised to create a foothold onto the Arabian Peninsula and then venture beyond to Africa and Europe. Additionally, it could avoid the Hormuz Straits chokehold by directly connecting the Mekran Coast of Pakistan to Africa or even via the Arabian Peninsula. Quite a few European countries are already part of the BRI. Furthermore, Afghanistan has now been incorporated into the BRI-CPEC. It will be the conduit for the CARs into the GMER, Pakistan and the Arabian Sea by the shortest, most direct route.
Time is of the essence in this race for viable trade corridors. The BRI is practically more than a decade plus ahead of the B3W and the IMEETC in operationalising its objectives of connectivity and economic interdependence. How far will it have already progressed more by the time these US sponsored trade corridors get off the drawing boards and become realities? This time gap has allowed the BRI to develop its multidimensional infrastructure across continents and regions and create networks that portend improved economies, progress and prosperity for all countries involved. The rewards have been very forthcoming. This relentlessly increasing gap will be hard to bridge for the competing powers and their preferred trade corridors.
In the economic factor too, China holds the upper hand. China alone has planned to invest about $1 trillion dollars in the BRI. It essentially means only one source of funding and one decision-making authority. Unlike the BRI, the B3W and IMEETC are likely to have multiple sources of funding which will involve the apportioning of shares and responsibilities to members, timelines for funds to be available and an organisation to coordinate and transform the concept into reality on ground. The critical question of shared funding will cause a great deal of heart burn, debate and discussion. For the IMEETC, the current leaderships of KSA and UAE are least likely to be lured into picking up the bulk of the tab. India is likely to hold on tight to its purse strings too. European economies are suffering the drastic, debilitating consequences of the Ukraine war. The US is running a national debt in excess of $33 trillion and counting. Where are the funds going to come from? Furthermore, decision-making will most probably be through consensus and that alone will be a disruptive, time-consuming exercise in itself.
So, how best can the US-led West and its allies then counter the BRI?
A win-win situation for all would have been for the US-led West and its allies joining the BRI and becoming partners in lifting the poverty-stricken global South out of poverty and spreading wellbeing and prosperity across the globe. India especially could gain enormously from the regional CPEC. Pakistan would have welcomed such a balanced development. Currently, the US and its allies are consumed by competing with China and its BRI and are badly trailing in all aspects of time, space and funding. Apparently, the only viable option left for them is to confront it and move to sequentially delay, disrupt and if possible, destroy it. The US-led West and its allies are most likely to adopt a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, they will try to compete with the BRI through its various prospective trade corridors and on the other, they will move decisively to stunt its growth and if possible, grind it to a halt. That will bring the CPEC into their crosshairs–arguably the weakest and most vulnerable link in the BRI. A neutralised, nullified CPEC will have disastrous consequences for the BRI. It will retard its further ingress into the GMER; Iran through Pakistan, (though China is already developing alternate routes as well) and on to the Arabian Peninsula, Africa and Europe. That could reflect very adversely on China’s and the BRI’s international credentials too.
Pakistan will inevitably suffer the fallout of major power rivalry on trade corridors. The CPEC, the flagship project of the BRI, is a vital national interest of Pakistan and its economic lifeline for the future. However, it also appears to be the weakest, most susceptible link in the BRI. It is under relentless, savage terrorist attacks from within, Iran and Afghanistan. Hostile intelligence agencies and their terrorist proteges are attacking it unremittingly with renewed ferocity and savagery. Another Operation Zarb-e-Azb is the need of the hour. Pakistan must to talk to the Afghan Taliban while at the same time it must take proactive measures to snuff out the terrorist threat. It must also exploit its multifarious non-military leverages over Afghanistan too to stop these cross-border terrorist attacks. If Pakistan’s vital national interest is secured by carrying the fight against terrorism across the Pak-Afghan border, then so be it. Lastly, Pakistan must welcome investments from the US-led West and elsewhere in the CPEC. It must maintain a balance in its relationships with both major powers. However, it must remain aware and wary of any Trojan Horses that might harm the CPEC. Pakistan must determine for itself where its vital national interests lie and move decisively to secure them. Period.
The BRI is likely to keep increasing this multidimensional gap between itself and the other prospective trade corridors and will eventually grow beyond the reach of the US-led West and its allies. That will immensely enhance China’s sphere of influence and strategic reach. The other trade corridors are yet to develop beyond their conceptual, embryonic stages. They have no finalised roadmaps, timelines, funds or any structures or organizations evolved that could help create, manage and sustain them.
For the moment, it appears to be an outright, unequal contest.

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at im.k846@gmail.com and tweets @K846Im.

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