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IMEC Roadblocks: India's 'Look West' Maritime Vision Hits a Snag

On the sidelines of the G20 Summit in September 2023, India, Italy, France, Germany, the European Union, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia jointly signed a memorandum of understanding for the establishment of the India-Middle-East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which encompasses both railway and sea links. The strategic location of the Middle East at the crossroads of two continents - Asia and Europe, and India’s reliance on the Middle East for a substantial portion of its energy imports hold pivotal significance in India’s broader maritime diplomacy within the context of the Indo-Pacific. As the IMEC seeks to extend India's enduring connection with the Middle East, this article aims to contextualize it within the framework of India’s maritime diplomacy, especially the ‘Look West’ component of it. 

IMEC is a renewed attempt to reinvigorate the link that dates back to the days of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was further expanded during the Roman times when trade contracts were established between Kerala and shippers in Alexandria.India's engagement with the Arab Gulf countries had been expanding since the 1970s, well before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched India’s "Look West" policy in 2005. The post-Cold War dynamics, in which the Gulf States host India’s large diaspora and supply the bulk of India’s oil as well as the historical economic and cultural linkages led to this development. The ‘Look West’ intensified through its transformation into ‘Act West' with special impetus on maritime diplomacy Under Modi’s regime bringing India closer to Gulf countries and turning it into one of the most important dimensions of India’s Indian Ocean diplomacy, the Indian Navy has not only initiated a program for security collaboration with the Gulf States but has also strengthened its operational coordination with their navies through defense cooperation. 

The IMEC helps India overcome its barrier to establishing land connectivity with West Asia which has been disrupted due to perennially distraught relations with Pakistan. This proposed corridor would bypass this hindrance by linking ports on India’s west coast to those in the UAE and Saudi Arabia to further boost India’s maritime diplomacy with the West Asian region. Although this project matters to all the concerned countries as a counter arrangement to China’s Belt and Road Initiative that aims to position China as the centre of the global economy, it especially supplements India’s broader vision of the Indo-Pacific that prioritises the multilateral organisations like GCC as part of its ‘Look West’ maritime diplomacy. As the IMEC strategically connects India to the Middle East and Europe, creating a comprehensive trade and energy network, it not only enhances India's economic ties but also strengthens its geopolitical influence across the Indo-Pacific region. Given India’s apparent hesitancy to fully align with the West, as demonstrated by its reluctance to perceive the Quad as an explicitly anti-China alliance, its preference for an evasive balancing approach, and its endorsement of the BRICS expansion, it looks for opportunities to re-establish connections with non-Western nations. The IMEC seamlessly fits into this broader geopolitical strategy. It also indicates India’s keenness to integrate the Western Indian Ocean into a cohesive space. The Western Indian Ocean assumes critical importance in realizing an integrated Indo-Pacific vision as it serves as a key maritime crossroads connecting the Indian Ocean to the broader Pacific region. This maritime domain plays a pivotal role in facilitating trade, energy transit, and strategic connectivity, bridging continents and fostering economic interdependence. This vision was previously absent from India's policies and a transformative reimagination has already materialized with India's endorsement of U2I2 (a grouping of India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States) mirroring the Quad in the Western Indian Ocean. 

However, some serious drawbacks arising out of logistical limitations, the complex geopolitics of the West Asian region, and the recent intensification of the Israel-Hamas War undermine the strategic and economic potential of the IMEC. The proposed plan contains two corridors: the east corridor connecting India to the Arabian Gulf (primarily a maritime route) and the northern corridor connecting the Arabian Gulf to Europe (a combination of railway and sea link). The objective here is to boost road, rail, and maritime connectivity, facilitating increased movement of goods and services among South Asia, West Asia and Europe. However, the overall process may face challenges with prohibitively high loading and unloading costs. The transportation of goods originating from Europe to reach India, and vice versa, which would be unloaded at Israeli ports, entails the use of expensive rail routes. Moreover, this transportation process involves traversing numerous border crossings, thereby necessitating the resolution of tariff and transit expenses. These challenges arise from logistical complexities, raising questions about the overall feasibility of the initiative. 

Moreover, the internal political instability in West Asia, which is the only region in the world lacking an inclusive regional security system complicates matters. From the decade-long rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia to the new forms of religious extremist groups in the region, the complex geopolitics of West Asia deters India from choosing a definite path concerning its ‘Look West’ policy. Although Iran has made slow progress in fully operationalizing the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) – a corridor connecting India to the Caspian Sea, Russia, and Northern Europe through Iran, it is expected that India and Iran will soon sign a deal on the Chabahar Port. However, the decades-long hostility between Iran and Israel compromises the chosen route of IMEC that passes through the Israeli port of Haifa. This situation raises questions in Tehran. Consequently, India may find itself in a dilemma, whether to proceed with signing a deal on the Chabahar Port or move ahead with the IMEC. 

These problems have been compounded due to the intensification of the Israel-Hamas war which has created an obstacle for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to participate in the IMEC project alongside Israel. The success of the entire project hinges on the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, an extension of the Abraham Accords that led Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE to officially recognize Israel in August 2020. However, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza has halted the progression of this normalization process. Even if the war subsides, it would have a long-term impact on IMEC. Thus, the kind of diplomatic cooperation that IMEC warrants is questionable and is way more complicated now. 

India has long pursued proactive maritime diplomacy in the Indian Ocean to counter Chinese assertiveness. However, India's stance on West Asia is influenced by the region's internal dynamics, over which it has limited control. Despite the historical foundations of India's relations with the Arab Gulf countries, the intricacies of West Asia present challenges for its 'Look West' strategy. The success or failure of IMEC in the coming days hinges on how its member nations, including India, address these challenges. 


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