This week the Johns Hopkins University in Washington is hosting a major regional conference on the historic Silk Road. The “Trans-Caspian East-West Trade & Transit Corridor” event co-hosted by the embassies of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey brings together officials from the United States and the region with over 50 major international companies and academic leaders to brainstorm the strengthening of regional integration. The transit corridor from China to Europe includes a sophisticated infrastructure and harmonized “software” of procedures and guidelines to speed up shipments of goods, shorten delivery times and decrease overall costs.
From Kazakhstan’s “Eastern Gate” to Azerbaijan’s largest port on the Caspian, Alyat, to the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railways and Turkey’s Marmaray under-Bosphorus tunnel we are witnessing a new regional connection with global implications. The Silk Road, once a fabled route for trade, has always fascinated traders and adventurers alike. These days, the route is becoming a reality, hopefully a profitable one, once again.
For American companies, the opportunities abound in a wide range of areas from logistics to construction to manufacturing to communications and services. For instance, by using the trans-Caspian corridor, shipments from Asia to Europe can be moved three times faster in comparison to the maritime route. Economic benefits are obvious; and so are the strategic ones. Working with trusted partners to promote development, prosperity and security in one of the world’s crucial neighborhoods is clearly in the United States’ interest.
Importantly, this transit corridor is about public-private partnerships, where businesses, along with the region’s governments, play a vital part in its formation. It is also about regional integration with the governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey working together to synchronize efforts and make the transit as smooth and efficient as possible for its users. As they do so, they build on their earlier successful experience of building the East-West energy corridor, and especially the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, delivering resources of the Caspian Sea to global markets. And while the Silk Road is not about energy, it is reinforced by the development of Europe’s Southern Gas Corridor, one of the world’s most ambitious infrastructure projects directly linking Azerbaijan’s natural gas fields to European consumers.
The Silk Road conference in Washington comes right after the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations forum in Baku, Azerbaijan. This adds a vital dimension to the discussion because the historic Silk Road was always about more than transit or, in fact, silk; it was a conduit for exchanging ideas and knowledge. People traded, traveled, learned about each other and, more often than not, celebrated diversity. At the time of deepening divides and rising extremism, a major international event in Baku, a key juncture along the Silk Road, called for tolerance and building inclusive societies. This underscored the wider significance of the nations of our region and global partners working together in establishing a cooperative environment for integration.
Of course, just as the promise of regional prosperity encourages some, it may irritate others. Recently, we have seen an unfortunate escalation of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan with lives lost on both sides. This was a violent reminder that there are starkly different visions for our region’s future. One of promoting regional cooperation, strengthening sovereignty and independence of partner states, inclusive societies and prosperous development, and the other of ethnicity-driven politics, continuous conflict, displacement and handicapped sovereignty.
Cooperation and integration, best illustrated by the modern Silk Road, represent a historic opportunity to shape a new geography and build a new future for our region. Perhaps, it is time to learn from history instead of just referring to different historic narratives. And, if there is anything to learn, it is that the ancient Silk Road helped to unlock human potential and stimulate progress beyond anyone’s imagination at the time. Today, the modern Silk Road can take us beyond our imagination once again.
• Elin Suleymanov is the Azerbaijan ambassador to the United States.