In March, during the Boao Forum for Asia, the Chinese government issued an action plan for its maritime and economic belt, 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 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 $US40 billion ($55bn) 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 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 a speech to the State Council, he has gone as far as saying the “people-to-people bond provides the public support” for implementing its Silk Road agenda.
Xi also has identified cultural promotion, media co-operation and volunteering as key elements of his strategy.
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 more than 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 5000 students. Other Chinese universities have announced plans to set up in Malaysia and Britain.
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 numbers of which have more than doubled — as has its economic influence. China already provides a lot of scholarships to international students. In 2010, it sponsored almost 23,000 and plans to fund 50,000 by this year.
The second part involves using governance and technical training to engage government officials.
Xi has highlighted training as an important form of co-operation. 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 under way to establish a science and education centre that will open links into Central, South and West Asia, and Russia’s Far East. In May, 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. It’s practical, responsive to development needs and can be packaged easily for media communications. Beijing’s use of education will help it soften the edges of what is viewed regionally as an ambitious and politically complex endeavour. More important, the venture will allow China to address the region’s yawning skills gap, which invariably stands in the way of its economic ambitions.
Eugene Sebastian is deputy pro vice-chancellor, business international, at RMIT University. Rahul Choudaha is chief knowledge officer at World Education Services in New York. Article published in The Australian Newspaper: : “Knowledge helps power China along the new Silk Road”