The ongoing geopolitical changes and economic necessities in the contemporary world have led to the rise of strategic trade and transport corridors. Among the prominent ones are the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by China, the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) initiated by Russia, India, and Iran, and the newly proposed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor.
The Belt and Road Initiative:
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), is a colossal infrastructure and development project spearheaded by the Chinese government. Initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping, it aims to build a modern-day version of the ancient Silk Road. The BRI is among the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived, encompassing multiple countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Components of BRI:
- A series of land-based infrastructure projects including roads, railways, and pipelines across Central Asia and Europe.
- A network of ports, shipping lanes, and other maritime infrastructure projects stretching from South China Sea to Africa and the Mediterranean.
- The BRI aims to create a vast network of railways, pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia.
- It’s also about resources. The BRI may give China more secure access to essential energy and mineral resources.
- By investing in infrastructure, China aims to build strong diplomatic relations with BRI countries, forging deeper economic and political ties.
- Some critics argue that the BRI is a tool for China to foster a dependency relationship with participating countries by luring them into unsustainable debts.
- Strategic concerns arise when Chinese-built infrastructure like ports can potentially be used for China’s naval operations.
The main transport routes of the “One Belt – One Road” initiative
(Source: SHS Web of Conferences)
Beyond the physical infrastructures like railways and ports, China also envisions a digital connection with the participating countries. The “Digital Silk Road” is expected to include projects related to telecommunications, space satellites, and electronic commerce. These initiatives aim to expand China’s digital influence, fostering technological innovation and integration across BRI countries. One of the often-overlooked elements of the BRI is the cultural connection.
With infrastructural development comes the opportunity for increased tourism, academic exchanges, and cultural events. These interactions serve as a bridge for better understanding and harmony among the diverse civilizations present along the BRI route.
China has established numerous financial entities to fund the Belt and Road projects, such as the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). These institutions aim to provide financial support to the BRI countries and ensure the smooth implementation of projects. However, the financial scale and transparency of these investments have raised concerns among some international observers.
As with any grand endeavor, the BRI’s future remains uncertain. It faces challenges from geopolitical rivalries, concerns about environmental sustainability, and potential economic downturns. However, its successful completion could reshape global trade patterns, enhance regional cooperation, and potentially establish a new paradigm of globalization, centered around Asia with China as its core. In wrapping up, the Belt and Road Initiative’s grandeur and ambition are undeniable. It’s a testament to China’s vision for the future – a world where nations are more deeply interconnected, and the benefits of economic development are shared more widely. While challenges and criticisms exist, the potential positive impacts of the BRI, both economically and culturally, are vast. As the project progresses, it will be crucial for countries involved to collaborate closely, ensuring that the initiative benefits all and harms none.
The International North–South Transport Corridor:
The International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) stands as a testament to the increasing efforts to facilitate efficient and seamless trade between major economies of the world. However, while its significance is well recognized, a deeper exploration into its implications, advantages, and even its challenges are worth understanding. The INSTC is a multi-modal transportation network established to ensure the seamless movement of goods between India, Russia, Iran, Europe, and Central Asia. In essence, it aims to reduce transportation costs and travel time, thus providing an economic advantage for member nations. Covering a distance of about 7,200 km, INSTC links the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, extending up to Northern Europe. Such connectivity creates a strategic corridor that bypasses the traditional route through the Suez Canal, which is lengthier and more expensive.
The primary benefit of INSTC is economic in nature. It’s estimated that the corridor could reduce transport costs by about 30% and cut transit time from 40 to 50% compared to the traditional route through the Suez Canal. This provides a competitive advantage for trade, promoting the growth of economies involved. Besides its economic implications, INSTC serves as a geopolitical tool. With nations like India, Russia, and Iran at its core, the corridor holds strategic significance, especially for India, which views it as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Several projects are currently underway to augment the infrastructure and enhance the capabilities of the INSTC. This includes rail projects, road construction, and port developments, especially in regions that form the crux of the corridor like Iran’s Chabahar port.
The INSTC does not stand in isolation. It is seen as a complementary initiative to other regional connectivity programs. For instance, the Ashgabat Agreement, which aims to establish an international transport and transit corridor between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, can potentially integrate with INSTC to offer more extensive connectivity solutions. Additionally, the Chabahar port agreement between India, Iran, and Afghanistan serves as a strategic node in the INSTC and provides a pivot for the expansion of trade corridors into Central Asia. Modern transportation and logistics rely heavily on technology. The future success of INSTC might be influenced by the adoption of digital platforms for trade facilitation, real-time tracking of goods, and enhancing port efficiencies. As the world leans more into digitalization, integrating technological solutions into the INSTC framework could streamline processes and reduce logistical bottlenecks.
As transportation networks expand, environmental concerns take center stage. The INSTC member nations will need to ensure sustainable infrastructure development that minimizes environmental degradation. This involves adopting cleaner transportation methods, ensuring minimal disruption to ecosystems during infrastructure projects, and a general commitment to sustainable practices. The success of a transcontinental project like the INSTC requires harmonious diplomatic interactions. This is particularly crucial given the diverse set of nations involved, each with its geopolitical ambitions and regional dynamics. Regular dialogues, trust-building measures, and dispute resolution mechanisms will be vital to ensure the corridor’s long-term success. While the advantages are numerous, INSTC faces several challenges. These range from political disagreements among member nations, security issues, especially in volatile regions, to infrastructural limitations that need addressing for the corridor to function at its peak potential.
The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor:
The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is an initiative that seeks to enhance connectivity and cooperation among countries spanning three significant regions. Its conceptualization and subsequent promotion hint at not only an economic endeavor but also a strategic move in global geopolitics. At its core, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor aims to connect India with Europe through the Middle East. It will create a cohesive network of roads, railways, and other transportation avenues, enabling seamless trade and investment across the corridor. The endeavor emphasizes infrastructural development, which is indispensable for increasing trade volumes and facilitating faster movement of goods and services. The Economic Corridor promises mutual growth and prosperity for the involved nations. By uniting these regions, the participating countries expect to tap into the vast markets of Europe and India while capitalizing on the Middle East’s strategic location and resources. Moreover, it is envisaged that the corridor will bolster investments, tourism, and people-to-people links, enhancing cultural exchange and mutual understanding.
Beyond economic imperatives, the corridor represents a significant geopolitical maneuver. By establishing this connection, the countries involved subtly rebalance the world order. The corridor might be viewed as an alternative or counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has been expanding its influence across Asia and Europe. With India at the forefront of this initiative, it strengthens its position as a regional power and expands its strategic influence. A testament to the corridor’s significance is the participation of various nations. While India and EU countries are the primary stakeholders, several Middle Eastern countries have shown keen interest, understanding the potential benefits of this collaboration. This diverse participation ensures a more inclusive and broad-based development.
One of the key considerations for such a vast infrastructure project is its environmental impact. With the global push towards sustainability and the effects of climate change becoming more evident, it’s imperative that the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor incorporate green technologies and sustainable practices. The inclusion of renewable energy sources, eco-friendly transportation alternatives, and sustainable urban development could set a precedent for future economic corridors worldwide. An initiative of this magnitude inevitably comes with security concerns. The Middle East, in particular, has areas of unrest and geopolitical tensions. A robust security framework is crucial to ensure the safety of the infrastructure, investments, and people involved. Collaborative security efforts, including intelligence sharing, joint patrols, and conflict resolution mechanisms, will be foundational to the corridor’s success.
Comparison of Corridors:
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stands out as a superior infrastructural venture compared to the International North–South Transport Corridor and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor for several reasons:
- BRI is unprecedented in its scope, aiming to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe through land and sea. It involves over 60 countries and covers about two-thirds of the world’s population.
- China’s commitment to the BRI is robust, with hundreds of billions of dollars already spent. It has set up institutions like the AIIB and Silk Road Fund to finance projects under BRI.
- The BRI isn’t just an economic venture. It’s also a geopolitical strategy that allows China to extend its influence across participating nations, enhancing its position in global affairs.
BRI isn’t solely about transportation. It’s a multifaceted initiative, including energy projects, industrial parks, and port development. This comprehensive nature ensures that the infrastructure is backed by sustainable economic activities.
- Projects under the BRI, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, have seen substantial completion and are already showing economic benefits.
- BRI focuses on critical chokepoints, like the Strait of Malacca, ensuring that China secures vital trade routes.
In contrast, while the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is backed by the US and EU, and it aims to counter the BRI, it still lacks the scale, comprehensive approach, and funding commitment seen in the BRI. Similarly, the International North–South Transport Corridor, though important, is regional in its scope and ambition, making it less transformative than the BRI. Lastly, while all these initiatives aim to reshape global trade, the BRI’s unmatched scale, ambition, and China’s commitment make it stand out as the most influential initiative among them.
Dr. Sahibzada Muhammad Usman: Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Engagement Academy, School of Culture and Communication, Shandong University (Weihai). Dr. Usman has participated in various national and international conferences and published 30 research articles in international journals.
Fatime Mehdi: Researcher at the University of Siena, Italy.