Across the globe, we observe no significant changes in the political boundaries of countries, but geopolitical boundaries are being redrawn, creating new lines that connect and separate different regions.
Redrawing political boundaries often requires a war. However, the boundaries and possibilities of economic and trade cooperation have been determined by trade corridors and supply chains instead of wars for some time now. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee at this stage that this process will not lead to war, but currently, all parties are focused on securing their positions. Nobody wants to stay out of the game, and everyone knows that the cost of staying outside the game will be significant.
While the world grapples with seismic shifts caused by geopolitical turmoil, we also observe new efforts among countries for cooperation, normalization and reconciliation. The international political agenda is simultaneously filled with discussions of “decoupling” and “fragmentation,” as well as topics like “connectivity” and “cooperation.”
Sanctions trigger self-sufficiency, and protectionism opens the door to new trade endeavors. While it is said that we have reached the end of globalization as we know it, on the other hand, we are being heralded at the threshold of hyper-globalization. For politicians, this presents a challenging task: not to choose one of these dichotomies, but to take the right steps in a world where these coexist.
As the world navigates these dualities in international politics, the geopolitical landscape is undergoing a profound transformation. In this evolving scenario, the Joe Biden administration has taken decisive steps to address the shifting balance of power, particularly concerning China’s expansive infrastructure initiatives and changing global dynamics. Recognizing that traditional notions of military supremacy no longer suffice in an interconnected world, Washington has begun exploring alternative avenues to safeguard its interests and influence.
Infrastructure as a global public good
Upon assuming office, one of the Biden administration’s initial priorities was to formulate a response to China’s infrastructure initiatives and trade routes. The focus turned to a “democratic version” of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). First, the Build Back Better World program was announced, followed by the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment initiative. While it’s challenging to predict their exact evolution, it’s clear that the U.S. has recognized that traditional military superiority is no longer sufficient in today’s world.
Particularly, China’s elevation of infrastructure to a global public good on par with the United States’ security promise has set off alarm bells in Washington. China has also effectively wielded the BRI initiative as a tool of soft power. Now, the U.S. is employing a similar playbook. To safeguard their interests, it has become evident that methods such as forming military pacts or deploying troops are inadequate. Port investments, freight rail lines, free trade and investment agreements have become the building blocks of new geopolitical balances. In this context, President Biden may have found what he was looking for at the G-20 summit in New Delhi.
September’s G-20 summit held in New Delhi has added a new dimension to these discussions. India, along with the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Germany, Italy and the European Union, laid the foundation for the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) with a joint declaration.
The IMEC is an initiative aimed at enhancing connectivity and fostering economic integration among South Asia, the Arabian Gulf and Europe. The IMEC will consist of two separate corridors: the east corridor connecting India to the Arabian Gulf and the northern corridor connecting the Arabian Gulf to Europe. At this stage, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to refer to this new corridor as the “Modi-Von der Leyen-Biden corridor,” given the key role these leaders have played in its establishment.
Following the expansion decision taken at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit earlier and the announcement at the G-20 summit in September, it is evident that moves on the chessboard are increasing in frequency. BRICS’ expansion highlights China as the leader of the Global South, while the G-20 summit in New Delhi saw India declaring its aspirations for the same role. With the encouragement of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who prefers the more Hindu-oriented name “Bharat” over “India” used since colonial times, the joint statement at the G-20 included expressions aimed at alleviating debt vulnerability in the Global South.
In a summit where Russian and Chinese leaders were absent, host India had the opportunity to showcase its role as the “leader of the developing world.” It remains to be seen whether this initiative, still in its conceptual stages, will serve as leverage to encourage other countries in the Asia-Pacific region to collaborate with India in the coming days.
From the perspective of the U.S., at a time when there is talk of China’s growing influence in the Gulf and America’s diminishing appeal, the establishment of such an agreement represents a significant achievement for U.S. Democrats as they head toward elections. The U.S. is pursuing a dual-track strategy: on one front, it continues its containment policy towards China, a strategy it knows best, by shifting NATO towards the Pacific and forming pacts like AUKUS. On the other front, it borrows tactics from China’s playbook by proposing alternative infrastructure investments to the world. This is why IMEC is already being considered as an alternative to China’s BRI.
Two fronts of normalization
Creating a commercial route through the Arabian Peninsula instead of relying on the Suez Canal is a decision that is clearly driven by both economic and geopolitical considerations. Rather than aligning excessively with China, the U.S. would prefer a Saudi Arabia that is economically integrated with India and moving toward normalization with Israel. Although not explicitly stated in the agreement’s name, Israel is one of the not-so-hidden participants in the IMEC.
Behind the corridor initiatives, we notice a wave of “normalization” unfolding on two fronts in the Middle East: On one side, the U.S. is working to mend relations between Israel and Arab countries. On the other, China is investing diplomatic efforts in enhancing ties between Iran and Arab nations. The question of who will normalize the Middle East could translate into who will expand their influence in the region.
While the U.S. and India may assign an “anti-BRI” connotation to this corridor, for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which collaborate with China on the BRI and have been invited as full members to the BRICS mechanism, the new corridor might not replace BRI, but rather complement it. The sustainability of this approach remains to be seen. These countries may continue to plan their geo-economic objectives independently from their geopolitical agendas for a while. The current international relations provide middle-sized powers with the opportunity to engage in such “multi-play,” but maintaining a balance between economic interests and political motivations won’t be easy. Especially in an era where the neoliberal economic order is giving way to protectionism in trade, technology and investment, saying “economy first” is becoming increasingly challenging, and engaging in trade is akin to stepping onto a minefield.
Silk and spice roads
Infrastructure projects have historically served geopolitical purposes. What held the Roman Empire together was its transportation network that famously proclaimed, “All roads lead to Rome.” In ancient China, while constructing walls along its northern borders and the Grand Canal connecting the south to the north, the idea was to strengthen connectivity within the empire. Infrastructure, especially from China’s perspective, is not merely an investment and a tool for economic growth; it’s seen as a global public good externally and a national security component internally, holding together vast territories. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, along with the enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law within two years, serves as significant examples of how infrastructure projects align with other legislative measures.
Going further back in history, the ancient Silk Roads encompassed some of the most comprehensive trade corridors, serving not only as conduits for trade but also as carriers of cultural and human exchange. In more recent times, the Suez and Panama Canals stand out as prime examples of infrastructure’s geopolitical utility. What made the British Empire the “empire on which the sun never sets” was, in essence, the connectivity between cities and ports where the British flag flew. British Historian Peter Frankopan, in his book “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World,” described the transportation network we saw up until the mid-20th century:
“It was possible to sail from Southampton, London or Liverpool to the other side of the world without leaving British territory, putting in at Gibraltar and then Malta before Port Said; from there to Aden, Bombay and Colombo, pausing in the Malay Peninsula and finally reaching Hong Kong.”
Frankopan ends this passage with a thought-provoking note for today: “Today, it is the Chinese who can do something similar.”
Chinese leaders recognized this potential before Frankopan did. In 2013, China unveiled the BRI, laying out its global vision. While the initiative has somewhat lost its initial momentum, in its early years, it piqued the interest of many developing countries and even G-7 members like Italy.
We should not see BRI as just a 10-year initiative starting in 2013. Rather, it represents the systematic consolidation of China’s longstanding efforts in areas like infrastructure, investment, foreign trade and diplomatic influence, packaged under a new brand. BRI became the hallmark of China’s foreign policy, encompassing cooperation with China in sectors such as health, trade, education and even space, bringing the mystical “Silk Road” concept to life. In critical domestic projects like space exploration, China utilized names from its own ideological and cultural vocabulary, such as “Long March” (rocket family) and “Heavenly Questions” (China’s Mars mission). But when it came to presenting the multilateral infrastructure project to the world, China opted for a more appealing and fitting name: the Silk Road, a concept in history that evokes positive sentiments from all sides. In its 10th year, China will strive to renew hopes and dispel doubts about the BRI. This endeavor becomes more challenging with the emergence of a competing “Spice Route.” Moreover, the most substantial obstacle in front of the BRI is not the emergence of rival initiatives abroad (which might even serve as an impetus for BRI’s self-improvement), but rather domestic factors like economic slowdown.
In the past decade, it’s no coincidence that major foreign policy moves by countries have focused on infrastructure. In 2020, India, Iran and Russia jointly introduced the North-South Corridor. The EU, under the Global Gateway project, announced two initiatives focusing on energy, climate and digital connectivity in the Central Asian region. With the IMEC, the EU is calculating its connection to East Asian and Gulf markets, determined not to fall behind in the “new great game” in Central Asia.
‘Connectivity is destiny’
According to some predictions, humanity is expected to build more infrastructure in the next 40 years than it has in the past 4,000 years. Considering that only one-fourth of world trade takes place between neighboring countries, the new corridors to be constructed will serve as the world’s nervous system. During the age of geographical exploration, humanity discovered new land masses; now, with new technology and energy methods, we are in the process of rediscovering the world beneath our feet.
In his book “Connectography,” American author Parag Khanna argues that the world of the future will be woven together with infrastructure projects, asserting that wars will be won not by military doctrines but by economic master plans: “The nature of geopolitical competition is evolving from war over territory to war over connectivity. Competing over connectivity plays out as a tug-of-war over global supply chains, energy markets, industrial production, and the valuable flows of finance, technology, knowledge, and talent. Tug-of-war represents the shift from a war between systems (capitalism versus communism) to a war within one collective supply chain system. While military warfare is a regular threat, tug-of-war is a perpetual reality – to be won by economic master planning rather than military doctrine.”
Khanna, who views competitive connectivity as the arms race of the 21st century, states in the same book that in a world where we have become more interconnected through highways, airports, pipelines and power grids, the validity of the phrase “Geography is destiny” has diminished. Instead, he introduces a new maxim for the future: “Connectivity is destiny.”
Geopolitical “corridor wars” are causing all countries to reassess their strategic positions and potentials.
Today, policymakers, when determining their policies, look not at the political map of the world, but at a global network map that highlights highways, high-speed railroads, pipelines and internet cables. However, the age of connectivity can also be an age of bypassing because infrastructure projects and economic cooperation corridors inherently serve a dual purpose: They promote connectivity and trade on one hand while aiming to exclude certain countries or regions or balance their influence on the other. In an era where the rules-based multilateral system struggles to adapt to a changing world, all these initiatives might ignite the fuse of “corridor wars,” making trade more fragmented. Those left outside the supply chains may become more dependent on others.
Source : Daily Sabah