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Ajit Doval Spearheads India’s Response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative with IMEC

At the recently concluded G20 Summit in Delhi, the most significant announcement was the commitment to develop a rail and port network linking India to the Middle East and the Middle East to Europe and the US. This initiative is referred to as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). It is a clear alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which intends to connect the whole world to China through shipping, rail, and road networks, even if no participating country’s leader specifically named China.

The IMEC was not hastily assembled at the G20 Summit, despite Deputy NSA Vikram Misri leading rigorous discussions among the four countries and other stakeholders since early last week to finalize the arrangement. Its origins trace back to the I2U2 forum, established in October 2021 by the US, Israel, the UAE, and India, with the later addition of Saudi Arabia to the coalition.

Ajit Doval, the national security advisor for India, is responsible for developing this massive infrastructure project after months of discussions with peers from other participating nations, particularly American NSA Jake Sullivan.

Four countries founded the I2U2 union in October 2021. India, the US, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates make up the group. The group’s main goals are to strengthen international cooperation in technology and the business sector and address significant problems. The organisation released its first joint statement in July of last year, reiterating the six emphasis areas that member countries had unanimously decided to target. Water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security are some of these important topics.

Discussions at the I2U2 forum generated the concept of IMEC, including Saudi Arabia. The formation of I2U2 aimed to combat China’s expanding influence in the Middle East. A former senior Israeli official who was personally involved in the initial conversations on the matter told the American news portal Axios, “Nobody said it out loud but it was about China from day one.” During the I2U2 sessions, Israel was the one who first suggested using railroads to link the area. Utilising India’s experience with such huge infrastructure projects, particularly railroads, was part of the plan.

Early in May, Doval met with representatives from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jake Sullivan, his American equivalent, to discuss the infrastructure project. The White House issued a terse statement in which it claimed that “National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Saudi Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and National Security Advisor of India Ajit Doval on May 7 in Saudi Arabia to advance their shared vision of a more secure and prosperous Middle East region interconnected with India and the world.”

Just before the meeting in Saudi Arabia, Sullivan made a brief mention of this initiative in his lecture at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “If you remember nothing else from my speech, remember I2U2, because you will be hearing more about it as we go forward,” he remarked. To connect South Asia, the Middle East, and the United States “in ways that advance our economic technology and diplomacy” was the primary idea, according to Sullivan.

Regional integration, according to Sullivan, was a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s Middle East agenda. “A more integrated, interconnected Middle East empowers our allies and partners, advances regional peace and prosperity, and reduces the resource demands on the U.S. in this region over the long term without sacrificing our fundamental interests or our involvement in the region,” he declared.

Doval and Sullivan have been meeting since the beginning of the year to lay the groundwork for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic state visit to the US in July. This trip proved to be a turning point as it resulted in an agreement between India and the US to expand their partnership in the areas of commerce, business, technology, and defence. Doval had begun laying the groundwork for this visit much earlier, and over several months of negotiations, he created momentum for several significant agreements between India and the US.

On the sidelines of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit in Tokyo in May of last year, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Modi announced the US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), which aims to strengthen and broaden the strategic technology partnership and defence industrial cooperation between the two countries. After that, Modi picked Doval to negotiate with various US parties and define and broaden the project. Before Modi’s state visit to the US, Doval and his American colleague Sullivan were preparing iCET. They solidified the concept of an infrastructure link between India, the Middle East, and Europe while collaborating on India-US partnerships.

Since China announced the BRI, it has increased its collaboration with West Asia, with a particular focus on Iraq. Iraq plays a significant role in China’s BRI due to its strategic location and trade across the Persian Gulf. Importing energy from West Asia is of utmost importance to China due to its unquenchable appetite for energy resources. According to a recent report by ET, China is making a strong effort to widen its influence throughout the West Asia and North Africa region by capitalising on the favourable conditions established by the China-mediated agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since finalizing the contract, China has undertaken a flurry of trips to the area.

According to a recent ET article, China Harbour Engineering Company, or CHEC, purportedly received a $2.1 billion contract in March to create infrastructure projects. The Saudi Public Investment Fund supports China’s local partner ROSHN. The proposed projects include schools and housing units. The China-Saudi Arabia Economic and Trade Cooperation Matchmaking Conference has previously seen the signing of several agreements.

The IMEC will not only constrain China’s strategic power that it obtains through trade and infrastructure agreements with other nations, but it will also counteract China’s expanding BRI footprint in the Middle East. As part of the IMEC, it is anticipated that India will build the railways in the Middle Eastern nations. This would open up for India other opportunities for cooperation with those nations while also establishing India’s status as a major builder of infrastructure around the world. Doval, India’s foremost security expert, has been instrumental in crafting the IMEC contract, showing that the infrastructure project is significant for India not only from an economic standpoint but also from a strategic and security one.

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