Soft diplomacy along the New Silk Road

In March, during the Boao Forum for Asia, the Chinese government issued an action plan for its maritime and economic belt, the Silk Road. The Silk Road concept is not new. Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the idea in 2013 during a visit to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. What is new is the use of education as a tool to help drive China’s regional economic ambitions.

The Silk Road will connect China to more than 20 countries through two major trade routes. One stretches overland from China through Central Asia and to Europe; the other is a maritime trade link connecting Chinese ports with coastal trading hubs in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

To help fund its ambitions, China has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and a US$40 billion Silk Road Fund. The huge investments poured into the Silk Road will reshape the regional economic architecture, infrastructure development and international relations.

Yet China understands that spending big is not enough to achieve its goals. It needs to splurge hard cash with diplomacy to win hearts and minds.

Xi is already incorporating education into his latest ‘manifesto’. In his speech to State Council, he went as far as saying the “people-to-people bond provides the public support” for implementing its Silk Road agenda. Xi has also identified cultural promotion, media co-operation and volunteering as key elements of his strategy.

Soft power

Education is important to Beijing’s diplomatic strategy. In 2008, a leaked cable from the US embassy in Beijing noted: “China actively pursues educational exchanges, cultural performances, youth exchanges and other instruments of ‘soft power’.”

Yang Rui, a University of Hong Kong academic, points to the network of over 700 Confucius Institutes as an important tool for Chinese language and cultural influence. “This move is arguably China’s most systematically planned soft power policy,” he says.

Education diplomacy also extends to setting up satellite campuses abroad. Soochow University, based in the eastern city of Suzhou, is raising money to build a campus in Laos, where it plans to enrol 5,000 students. Other Chinese universities have announced plans to set up in Malaysia and in the UK.

China's education strategy

China’s education strategy has three parts. First, Beijing has promised 10,000 new scholarships will be handed out every year to the countries along the Silk Road. Offering scholarships has worked in the past. Ten years ago, in support of its scaled-up engagement with Africa, Beijing introduced scholarships for African students, the number of which have more than doubled – as has its economic influence.

China already provides a large number of scholarships to international students. In 2010, it sponsored almost 23,000 and plans to fund 50,000 scholarships by this year.

The second part of the strategy involves using governance and technical training to engage government officials. Xi has highlighted training as an important form of cooperation. Yunnan province – in southwest China and an important pivot to South and Southeast Asia – is being positioned as a training base for public officials from Myanmar, Thailand and the Mekong Subregion.

Xi has even proposed sharing and integrating resources between countries to tackle issues such as youth employment, entrepreneurship training and vocational skills development.

The third part of the education strategy involves creating science and technology platforms, such as labs, centres and networks. These platforms will help promote research collaboration, exchanges and training.

In Xinjiang province – the northwestern hub – plans are underway to establish a science and education centre that will open links into Central, South and West Asia and Russia’s Far East.

In May, the Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road led by Xi’an Jiaotong University, was established. The alliance draws together more than 60 universities from 22 countries in Asia, the Middle East and Russia.

Education can be an effective diplomatic tool for engaging neighbours. Beijing’s use of education will help it soften the edges of what is viewed regionally as an ambitious and politically complex endeavour. More importantly, the venture will allow China to address the region’s yawning skills gap, which invariably stands in the way of its economic ambitions.

It offers ample opportunities for higher education institutions to proactively explore and engage in building international collaborations along the New Silk Road. This is especially a positive development in contrast to policy discussions related to a proposed law which aims to increase oversight of research collaborations and exchanges.

Dr Eugene Sebastian is deputy pro vice-chancellor Business International at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog. This article first appeared in The Australian.