University collaboration takes the Silk Road route

China has launched a new international alliance of universities to back up its huge infrastructure plan along the ancient Silk Road route, a byword for trade and cultural exchanges between Asia and Europe.

The Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road is a new higher education platform ostensibly to provide research and engineering support for China’s mammoth ‘One Belt, One Road’ project which includes countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and East Africa.

Some 60 universities from about 22 countries were invited to the gala inauguration last month of the Universities Alliance at Xi’an Jiaotong University, a major engineering and management institution in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, home of the Terracotta Army and an ancient imperial capital that was the eastern departure point of the Silk Road that stretched from Asia, through central Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Shaanxi has “geographical advantages and rich educational resources” for education cooperation with countries along the route of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Zhang Maizeng, Party chief of Xi'an Jiaotong University or XJTU, said during the opening ceremony on 22 May.

The flow of capital, technologies and human resources also requires interdisciplinary, interregional and cross-border sharing of higher education resources, Zhang said.

The new alliance also issued a Xi'an Declaration "to contribute to the common development of civilisation and open collaboration in higher education", based on “the spirit of the Silk Road – peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit”.

“The concept of the Silk Road alliance is to throw the net of university collaboration more widely. China would like to get closer to the Eurasian nations, that seems to be the thrust,” said Stephen Holloway, pro vice-chancellor for partnerships, civic engagement and enterprise at the UK’s Liverpool University, who attended the inauguration.

Liverpool already has a close association with XJTU with the joint Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, an independent institution set up in Suzhou, in eastern Jiangsu province.

Alliance countries

“The idea behind it [the Alliance] is that the universities that were part of the old Silk Road could find commonalities so that they can collaborate in partnerships both with one another and with Xi’an Jiaotong University in research, student exchanges and other activities associated with internationalisation,” said Holloway.

But he added, “broadly speaking the concept of the Silk Road is not to be taken too literally”, referring to universities at the inauguration that stretched beyond the Silk Road countries.

The inauguration included representatives from institutions such as the University of New South Wales and the University of Newcastle in Australia, Tampere University of Technology in Finland, the engineering institution École Supérieure d’Electricité in France, popularly known as Supélec, as well as the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy and the Technical University of Berlin.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the National University of Singapore, universities from Thailand and South Korea as well as a number of Russian universities were also present alongside institutions from central Asian republics.

Iain Martin, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, said the One Belt, One Road initiative and the university alliance would change the way universities collaborate, with new partnerships with China likely to evolve.

University representatives at the inauguration said the main emphasis was on “super connectivity” along the old Silk Road route, which will require technical skills and a great deal of research if it is to become a successful regional economy.

“Research and innovation would definitely be an element” of the partnerships, Holloway said.

XJTU, as the hub of the new Alliance, had in January set up a Collaborative Innovation Centre of Silk Road Economic Belt Research, backed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to develop into a “world-class think tank” to provide policy advice to government on the Silk Road Economic Belt.

Beyond soft power

China had previously looked to the West, in particular the US and Europe for university collaborations to help propel its own premier institutions to world-class level and to upgrade research and innovation, as part of its bid to become a major global science power.

It has also been extending university collaborations with institutions in Africa and Latin America as part of its ‘soft power’ policies.

Experts see the Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road as somewhat different, not merely an extension of Chinese soft power, or more cynically as a way of boosting XJTU’s international credentials in order to power it up the international rankings and cement its world-class status, but to back China’s wider economic aims.

Apart from research in health, engineering, energy and natural resources, China will be able to bring together institutions and engineers from partner countries to discuss the needs of specific countries and develop infrastructure plans both nationally and regionally.

“Part of China’s overarching aim is not merely to push Chinese culture abroad, but to push the boundaries of their geopolitical power and influence right across the Asian and European continents,” notes Mike Gow, a global postdoctoral fellow at New York University Shanghai and a close watcher of China’s higher education sector.

The Alliance follows the Chinese government’s One Belt, One Road initiative launched last year – shorthand for the two separate Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road initiatives, backed by a US$40 billion fund and with a new China-led regional development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or AIIB, to fund many of the projects.

The Silk Road Economic Belt, announced by President Xi Jinping in September 2013 during a visit to Kazakhstan, is a huge trade and infrastructure development initiative.

The parallel Maritime Silk Road initiative, announced a month later during Xi’s official visit to Indonesia in October 2013, includes countries in Southeast Asia and North Africa, as well as East Africa, with the construction of a major port and rail hub at Mombasa, Kenya.

“It’s about building trade routes between the Middle East and China, and also in Europe and China,” said Gow.

“While the emphasis is on infrastructure and trade routes, very interestingly this string of universities in a collaborative alliance looks as if it is there to facilitate pathways for knowledge to move freely across the Silk Road route,” Gow said.

Political advantages

Official accounts of the meeting in January of the new Collaborative Innovation Centre of Silk Road Economic Belt Research at XJTU noted that experts present agreed the One Belt, One Road initiative was aimed at “dispelling the misgivings held by other countries on China”.

According to Gow: “By bringing universities together in a network, China can build a lot of positive attitudes towards the One Belt, One Road initiative, whereas if it is seen as a hegemonic move to spread Chinese influence around these countries, it is going to encounter a lot of resistance. If you get the academy on-side, it becomes a different proposition altogether.”

Cooperation between universities brings other benefits and can lead to cooperation at government levels on other issues such as security, he said.

China is looking at “security, energy security, border security; they are looking at combating terrorism in the region”, said Gow, referring to China’s restive Muslim Uighur region in Xinjiang.

* Photo credit: The illustration is a work of art by HongNian Zhang. "The Silk Road" depicts a scene from the Han dynasty 206 BC to 220 AD.