New Silk Road must be inclusive, not confrontational

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A freight train route linking China's Hefei city to Central Asian countries starts operation. []

Over 2,000 years after the majestic ancient Silk Road linked East and West, the Eurasian network of trade routes is being overshadowed by conflicts and competition fueled by hunger for natural resources and geopolitical interests.

Today, there are different versions of new Silk Road initiatives in the central Asian passageway, such as the American “New Silk Road,” Japan’s “Silk Road Diplomacy” and China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt.”

While some of them are based on a belief in enduring peace and common prosperity for all countries, others seek domination by preaching confrontation and excluding other contenders.

The most relevant case is the US Silk Road revival project.

Though it eyes an economically vibrant and interconnected central Asia, the project is heavily ideologically loaded, excluding its political rivals such as Iran, and forcing others to take sides.

The US initiative can be characterized in a bracket with the superpower’s military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq that has only ended with chaos and dented political trust.

Those who are trying to rejuvenate the Silk Road should be aware of what kept it thriving historically: peace, mutual benefit, inclusiveness and openness. Any road that betrays the Silk Road spirit will not last long.

Road of peace

Unlike the great sea routes to the New World discovered by the European navigators that prompted bloody conquest and colonization, the Silk Road was always a road of peace.

It was only in the 14th century that escalating ethnic clashes, along with the launch of sea routes in southern China, gradually forced the road into decay.

The long-lasting peace was deeply rooted in booming trade along the route. The 4,000-mile road, which threaded the great civilizations of China, India, Babylon, Arabia, Greece and Rome, was packed with caravans transporting Chinese silk, Indian spices and Persian brocade.

Frequent trading along the road bound countries economically, and stability came out of shared interests. When the trading was at its peak, conflicts were rare in the region.

That is why when China proposed the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt last year, it called for strengthening of trade ties in the region, which lags behind economically.

Statistics have shown China’s sincerity in expanding trade with countries in central and western Asia.

In 2013, China’s imports from Arab countries amounted to US$140 billion. Its trading volume with the five central Asian countries has grown to more than 100 times what they were in 1992, when they established their diplomatic relations.

Sustainable trading, based on mutual benefits and open to all, is expected to lead to constant exchanges of skills and religions, and yield better mutual understanding and tolerance, as did the ancient Silk Road.

It was there that Chinese inventions such as paper and the compass spread to Europe and that Buddhism and Christianity were introduced to China.

Nourished by different civilizations, the road remained culturally and religiously inclusive.

Exquisite Buddhist sculptures and cave paintings in Dunhuang, a major stop on the road, are a testament to the blending of oriental and Western art.

For the time being, the Eurasian heartland faces traditional and non-traditional challenges and threats including cross-border organized crime, religious conflicts and terrorism. Only by abandoning ideological prejudice can countries join hands to address these challenges.

No nation is powerful enough to dominate the vast region that once thrived thanks to its openness and inclusiveness. A zero-sum mentality seeking confrontation and exclusiveness on the Silk Road will benefit nobody.

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