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Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative boosting academic links?

Data on the growth of scholarly collaboration across Asia, the

Middle East and eastern Europe suggest Beijing’s grand strategy
could be having an impact
May 14, 2019

By Simon Baker

Twitter: @HigherBaker

Source: iStock
China’s Belt and Road project, which is aimed at strengthening its
ties with the rest of Asia and beyond, may be primarily about
transport and infrastructure.
Since its launch in 2013, the £750 billion project – sometimes
described as the 21st-century Silk Road in a nod to the ancient
trading route between East and West – has poured money into
schemes that aim to improve links between China, Europe, the
Middle East and Africa by road, rail and sea.

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But it arguably is also the catalyst for a ramping-up of higher

education links between China, its nearest neighbours and nations
even further afield.
According to data on the amount of academic publications indexed
in Elsevier’s Scopus database that feature co-authors from different
countries, some of the biggest growth in collaborative research
involving China is in other parts of Asia, eastern Europe and north
For instance, leaving aside countries with the smallest co-authored
research output with China (those with fewer than 1,000 co-
authored papers between 2013 and 2017), nine nations increased
their collaborative research with China by more than 100 per cent in
the period 2013-17. All but one (Chile) were along the Belt and Road
And just behind them are two of the biggest countries within the
Belt and Road sphere of influence – India and Russia – whose
research collaborations with China ballooned by more than 90 per

Growth in Chinese collaborations on Belt and Road route

So does this apparent expansion of research links have its roots in
the Belt and Road strategy, or does it simply reflect the kind of
organic growth that might be expected of developing countries in
geographic proximity?
Mike Gow, lecturer in international business at Coventry University’s
School of Strategy and Leadership, said it was likely that Belt and
Road was playing a part.
“The Belt and Road Initiative is largely known for infrastructure
projects, but the promotion of HE collaborations and research that
informs [the scheme] is certainly a feature of initiatives and
activities across Chinese HE,” he said.
Dr Gow said that the Chinese government might not dictate exactly
how universities should build Belt and Road academic links, but it
would expect institutions to detail in their five-year plans how their
internationalisation projects fed into the initiative’s overarching
As a result, universities keen to contribute to the strategy might
make money available for scholars who collaborate along the Belt
and Road route, even if there is no major central fund for academics
tied to the initiative.
“They have given universities some kind of headspace to try to think
about how they might want to engage with [Belt and Road],” said
Susan Robertson, professor of the sociology of education at
the University of Cambridge. “There have been funds made available
for them to develop their own transnational strategies.”
On the academic side of Belt and Road, she noted, much of the
focus – although not all – had been around arts, social science and
humanities subjects because of an “absolute awareness” in China
that the country needed to bolster creative subjects. There was also
a sense that China wanted to “present to the world” the positive
contribution it could make to such fields, Professor Robertson
Dr Gow said that there were specific schemes aimed at building Belt
and Road higher education links, although these were often simply
programmes to facilitate academic networks rather than major
funding schemes in their own right.
One of the most prominent is the University Alliance of the Silk
Road (UASR), established in 2015 and now claiming to involve 150
universities across 38 countries, mainly those along the immediate
Belt and Road route but also institutions from as far away as the US.
The only UK institution that is part of the alliance, and a member of
its executive council, is the University of Liverpool. Its involvement
grew out of its partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong University (the two
institutions have a joint campus in Suzhou near Shanghai). Xi’an
Jiaotong was central to setting up the UASR because it is located in
the central Chinese city of Xi’an, the historic starting point of the
ancient Silk Road.
Dinah Birch, pro vice-chancellor for cultural engagement at
Liverpool, said that although the UASR was not a scheme on a “huge
scale”, it had opened doors to academics working in similar fields in
different nations. Liverpool had been closely involved in fostering
links between scholars working in cultural heritage fields, for
instance, and it hosted a round-table event last year on the topic.
The result, she said, was that the “intellectual and physical traffic”
along the Belt and Road route had been increased, something
especially true for countries that were previously quite isolated,
such as Kazakhstan.
“We are not talking about something that has been transformative,
but it has been a valuable channel for conversation, particularly
perhaps with central Asian countries,” she said.
There has also been a benefit for students, Professor Birch said,
who had the chance to attend summer schools in China set up as
part of the UASR initiative and wider opportunities to learn more
about Chinese culture, language and higher education.
Student mobility more generally is another aspect of the wider
higher education strategy for Belt and Road, with China seemingly
on course to hit an ambitious goal of hosting half a million
international students by 2020.
Countries along the Belt and Road route seem to be enjoying a new
surge of interest from international students, too, data from Times
Higher Education’s World University Rankings indicate.
But even if the Belt and Road strategy is driving much of this
increasing academic and student mobility – as well as facilitating
the flow of ideas – are there political barriers that will limit its
expansion, not least lingering suspicions that the Belt and Road
Initiative is simply a foreign policy tool to expand China’s global
Dr Gow said although the wider Belt and Road project might have
clear soft power goals for China, as long as the initiative remained a
priority for Beijing then it was likely to generate cross-border
research activity through the way it encouraged Chinese institutions
and academics to compete for resources.
“Most research collaboration between [China] and other countries is
a scholar-to-scholar arrangement, focused on producing outputs
valuable to the scholars themselves,” he pointed out.
Professor Robertson said the fact that this academic dialogue had
been opened up along the Belt and Road could help to act as an
antidote to any mistrust between West and East. “There has to be a
degree of openness; that is an integral part of higher education,”
she said.
It is one reason why, according to Professor Birch, it would be a
shame if schemes such as the UASR “withered” away at some point
if global political developments went in a different direction.
“I do believe that in these tense…times there is benefit in the
academics working at the coalface continuing to talk to each other.
I think that is what we need. I would feel anxious about a growing
academic culture where everyone is closing the door and locking it,”
she said.