Historically, the export of Chinese scientific knowledge to the rest of the world is a fundamental part of Chinese cultural identity. After the time of European enlightenment and the emergence of modern science, however, the roles changed. In recent times, China participated in the scientific innovations of the western world in particular by exchanging knowledge among scientists and by sending visiting students to western universities. In the course of economic liberalization, the Confucius Institutes were founded in 2004 with the aim of promoting cultural and scientific exchange. Interestingly enough, they are often situated at a university campus (unlike, for example, the German Goethe-Institute or the Institut Français). Although their main purpose is to promote and teach the Chinese language and culture, an ideological undertone is regularly attributed to them and skepticism is growing with regard to the political backdrops of their work.
On March 28, 2015, President Xi Jingping outlined China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” vision during his remarks at the Boao Forum for Asia. This project “covers over half of the global population and involves more than 60 countries along the routes, the economic aggregates of which account for about one-third of the world” (Zheng and Zhang Chi, 2018). According to the head of the scientific component of the project, “Science, technology and innovation are the core driving force for the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) development“ (Masood, 2019). In the framework of the president’s project, the University Alliance of the Silk Road (UASR) was founded as a non-governmental and non-profit organization. The self-declared goal is to “advance institutional exchanges and partnerships on the Silk Road routes in regards to talent education, scientific research, cultural dissemination, policy studies, and medical service etc.“ (UASR, n.d.).
The Chinese investment in the construction of modern infrastructure along the road, e.g. at the frontier to Kazakhstan, may be interpreted as an example of technological export and an argument for diplomatic interchange. The medium- and long-term impact of China’s “One Belt, One Road” vision remains unclear. The degree, however, to which the BRI incorporates science diplomacy may be taken as an indicator of how far it has become a coherent policy framework and actually incorporated into policy practice (Freeman 2019). Recently the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Quin Gang, pointed out that “China has partnered with thirty countries in the Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on COVID-19 Vaccines Cooperation to promote the fair international distribution of vaccines” (S&D Conversation 2021).
Lecturer, Leiden University
Senior Research Fellow, LeidenAsiaCentre
China`s BRI Education and Science Diplomacy
Over the past two decades, China’s importance for the development of modern sciences and future technologies has increased significantly. Chinese scientific publications have caught up with the number of publications by the industrialized countries and even outperformed some of them. Science is thus readily available as a tool for soft power in diplomacy. Chinese Science & Technology diplomats are working in embassies and consulates of the PRC in more than 50 countries (Fedasiuk et al. 2021). Chinese diplomacy demands communication on equal terms with leading industrial nations. Europe and China are indispensable partners in higher education and research, but European policymakers increasingly face the question of how to develop safe cooperation, as well as how to best minimize strategic, security, and ethical risks (d’Hooghe and Lammertink 2020). Here, the negotiation of a feasible roadmap may be needed. At the same time, Chinese government makes use of its new scientific-technological position and the growing economic power in its interaction with trusted partners (such as the BRICS states).
Science diplomacy is seen by the Chinese as an important instrument: “Promoting science diplomacy is a major part of the nation’s overall diplomatic work, and makes a contribution to major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” (MoST 2017, cited by Freeman 2019, 7). But science diplomacy, as Freeman (2019) shows in an analysis of Chinese basic political texts from the MoST among others, does not play a clear and consistent role in the orientation of the Chinese strategy. Rather, it is an instrument alongside others, especially economic ones, and is used selectively and sporadically. At least it appears that Chinese science diplomacy is not based on a fixed framework.
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