India’s Moment Has Arrived… Or Has It?

While there is no doubt that the G20 summit in New Delhi has given India a new sheen, the fact remains that India’s economy is not large enough to counter China’s, nor is the political leadership moral enough to garner the respect of the Global South.

India’s Moment Has Arrived… Or Has It?

The G20 summit was run of the mill. The only difference was that this time it was in India, and this is the reason it was touted as the Indian moment. The Indian moment it is though. India finds itself at a unique economic and politico-strategic crossroads where it is in Jaishankar’s words “hedging” its bets very cleverly between the United States, Russia, and China – succouring them with its economic might and at the same time not positioning itself firmly in any bloc.

China has frosty relations with India, but Xi Jinping avoided going to India not as an affront, but to lay out to the West that China wants a switch of gears in the Established World Order. A mere two weeks before, President Xi celebrated the inclusion of 6 new members to BRICS from next year, effectively doubling the organization’s size and showing to the West that China and Russia are doubling down on their own alliances. It is hard to imagine that BRICS can be a counterweight to Western led alliances like the G7, where members countries have similar standings and share similar values. BRICS, with the inclusion of countries such as Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, would be a widely disparate group with all the countries highly dissimilar in their economic standing and political values. Regardless, the hobnob of alliance making has only begun.

Since China has been upping the ante in terms of alliance-making, the United States followed suite at the G20 by formally announcing the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), with Joe Biden calling it a “real big deal.” This planned corridor would supposedly connect India to Europe via both shipping lanes and the railway and make India-Europe trade 40% faster. On a map, the planned route looks fantastical: starting at Mumbai in India, from there via ship to Dubai, then passing through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel on rail. At Haifa in territorial Israel, it would transition again to a sea lane going all the way to Piraeus in Greece, before transitioning to its last leg on to Italy, France, and Germany. Italy has become so enamored of this corridor that Prime Minister Meloni declared in Delhi that her country would leave the Belt and Road Initiative. While the BRI has yet to achieve any significant milestones, it is more realistic in its scope because its overland routes at least make logistical sense.

Western diplomats call the Chinese BRI an example of “debt-trap diplomacy” though, where unwitting low and middle-income countries are forced to hand over important ports because they cannot pay back the commercial loans from Chinese lenders. Hambantota in Sri Lanka is a case in point where in 2017 China Merchants Port Holding Company Limited took a 70 percent stake in the port for 99 years in return for $1.12 billion. However, this was not a debt-equity swap, rather a country leasing out a port to a capable multinational firm much like Pakistan leased out its Karachi port to an Abu Dhabi firm. Regardless, the Western point of view still stands that BRI would be completely Chinese-led and funded because majority of the countries BRI networks would pass through are not resourceful enough to invest in infrastructure themselves so would be beholden to Chinese state and its firms. On the other hand, IMEC would go through countries which have either well-endowed sovereign wealth or access to capital to kickstart new infrastructure projects.

A few historians have started doubting that the Silk Road, which BRI is modeled on, ever existed in ancient times, and claim that China and the Roman Empire were completely unknown to each other. In fact, the term “Silk Road” was coined up by a Prussian geographer in the 1870s who was tasked to conjure up a railway route from Berlin to Peking. As opposed to this, archeological records have been found in India, Egypt and Italy which show that maritime trade between India and the Roman Empire was thriving in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, when rich Romans were importing Indian luxuries via Egypt. We already know that the Red Sea trade between India and the Gulf countries has been going on for centuries. As much as the BRI has been presented as an imitation of an ancient trade route, so is the IMEC being served as a continuation of an old trading route.

The difference in the modern period would be that instead of the goods being transported from India to Europe via Egypt, which is a more direct and cheaper route, a more prolonged route via Dubai is being planned which will entail cargo being off-loaded from ships to rails and then onboarded again from trains to ship which is very time inefficient, cumbersome, and expensive. Further, while Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan may be autocracies, a train network with constant inflow and outflow to Israel would not be something their people would easily digest. And irony of all ironies, the shipping containers’ first point of entry into Europe would be the Piraeus port in Greece, which is operated by a Chinese firm.

Trade happens independently of politics. Sometimes, it is hampered by and sometimes it is helped by politics but trade routes form organically. Overland transport from China all the way to Europe seems as far-fetched as do containers going from India to Europe via the Middle East, switching from sea to train then back to sea, and last to European roads, and still apparently saving 40% transportation time. A better idea for all these powers would be to broaden the Suez Canal so that an already established trading route becomes more productive. China to Europe via road seems far-fetched because the road network would be going through economically marginalized and unstable Central Asian countries, then to the least developed European countries, majority of which do not have a viable enough road infrastructure, and Chinese investment would take decades to materialize and create this web of roads. If we look at BRI’s progress so far, China is ten years into it and almost $1 trillion down and yet the ancient silk road is far from becoming a modern one.

A simple reading of the map shows that a more direct route from China to Europe would go through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. But even a novice observer of politics would tell you that majority of these countries do not have the most suitable political conditions to facilitate overland trade. The best option for China to trade with Europe faster and cheaper is via Pakistan but through the Gwadar port. Maybe, China should significantly increase its investments in Pakistan’s road networks to facilitate this trade. This way, even if the IMEC becomes a reality, CPEC can become a part of it and Pakistan can enjoy the boons of this global trade.

While IMEC seems more like an American idea which sprouted from the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment last year to counter China’s growing influence in developing countries, India seems very interested in this corridor because it has very limited options for overland trade. On India’s North-West border, Pakistan blocks its access to Central Asia. The mountainous border with China does not present an ideal route for overland trade, and it is much more efficient to trade with South-east Asian countries via sea routes vs overland through Bangladesh.

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in the late 70s, there was much hullabaloo made around a Russian plan to get access to the warm waters of Pakistan. That plan might or might not have been true, but what policymakers in Pakistan overlook is that India wants access to the Central Asia states and to Russia via land as bad as Russia may have desired access to the Arabian Sea. This is the reason India was avidly developing the Chabahar Port in Iran, which later fizzled out due to sanctions. If Pakistan uses its geostrategic location to earn revenue from trade instead of looking at global politics from a myopic security lens, we would be able to benefit from European, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian, and even Russian trade down the road and manage to take our beleaguered people out of the throes of poverty.

There is no doubt that the G20 summit in New Delhi and Modi’s strongman persona has given India a new sheen and analysts across the world have started championing it as the leader of the Global South. The fact remains though that India’s economy is not large enough to counter China’s, nor is the political leadership moral enough to garner the respect of other Third World countries. When India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru coined the term “Non-Alignment,” it meant that India would play a pivotal role in the guarding the independence of countries which did not want to be in either the US or the Soviet bloc during the almost five decades long Cold-War. With its newfound economic clout, India appears to be doing the same vis-à-vis US and China but to a much lesser degree.