For Nikkei Asia by Michael O’Sullivan

‘IMEC’ could point the way forward for emergence of world’s ‘fourth pole’

It is now the consensus view that globalization, in the form it took from 1990 to 2020, is over, and that a transition is under way to a multipolar world.

From a geopolitical point of view, this multipolar world will likely be dominated by three significant players: a China, the Americas led by the US and the EU. They are each large, powerful and have increasingly distinct ways of doing things.

Much of the debate about the coming world order is consumed by discussion of these three poles to the exclusion and likely irritation of other powers like India, Japan and the U.K.

This month’s otherwise disappointing Group of 20 leaders summit in New Delhi witnessed a surprise announcement from the U.S., India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union about a new railway and port project to create an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) as a pillar of the G20’s Global Infrastructure Hub initiative.

Amid the rise of India as a geopolitical player and economy, and the ongoing rapid and historic remaking of alliances across the Middle East, the key question is whether this infrastructure corridor, bringing together India, the UAE and Saudi Araba, could provide the makings of a bona fide “fourth pole” on the geopolitical landscape.

This just an embryonic notion and there is much that could derail the pole’s emergence, ranging from climate change to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s antagonization of his country’s Muslim population to a collapse in the price of oil.

To gauge the putative pole’s chances, it is worth considering the characteristics of the world’s existing three power centers.

The first is what could be called a coherent mass. Europe, the U.S. and China have “mass”
economically, financially, diplomatically, industrially and militarily. By comparison, Russia is not a “pole” as it is not significant economically or industrially and has a toxic foreign policy.

India and Saudi Arabia, to take two elements of the embryonic fourth pole, are meaningful economically but less weighty as financial players though Saudi Arabia’s foreign reserves given it clout. Apart from India’s nuclear arsenal, neither is in the top division of battle-ready militaries either.

Building mass would take time and investment and would demand a strategic coherence from very disparate countries. Currently there are few policy areas where policy collaboration exists on a detailed and well-coordinated level between India and say the UAE.

The second and essential element of multipolarity is that each pole has a defined way of doing things. Europe is a liberal social democracy with increasingly coordinated policies, China has its “China Dream” social contract between the country’s people and the Communist Party, and the U.S. is making itself great, again. Each pole has a distinctly different approach to technology, the internet and lately, to regulating artificial intelligence.

The players along the India-to-Saudi Arabia corridor are very different in terms of their cultures and development models and very far from having a common policy method. But that could arrive with decades of close trade links and cooperation. In my view, its emergence will be highly influenced by the role of the Indian diaspora in countries as diverse as Kenya and the UAE.

In the context of IMEC, there is a great deal of talk about the Global South — the fast growing, populous countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

It does their individual cultures little justice to group them together and the idea of the Global South vastly overestimates the ability of these countries to act as a single entity. The primary challenge for Global South countries is to find ways to increase trade with each other.

In the long run, it may be that the India-Saudi Arabia-UAE corridor becomes the organizing locus for the Global South.

These countries could take heart from the early days of the U.S.  — for example, the ways in which Alexander Hamilton bound individual states together during the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion against national taxation — and the fact that the EU itself started off in 1952 as a trade and infrastructure project, with the European Coal and Steel Community.

So, it is too early to speak of a functioning fourth pole. India and its Middle Eastern peers need to be patient, study the history of the EU and U.S., not overreach and concentrate on trading more together.

A road map might start with a common secretariat and a small number of shared infrastructure projects as well as perhaps pooled investment funds and common legal and corporate governance frameworks to allows the disparate countries to work together.

An early institutional innovation might be a policy body that sounds out and tries to find areas of common alignment across populous emerging economies and that strives to be a voice for this effort.

If all that can be accomplished in the next five to 10 years, that might show the makings of a bona fide “fourth pole” exist. 

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