China has begun using the One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) project, rechristened the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), for expanding diplomatic engagement and securing strategic mileage. India might find itself strategically cramped as several countries from Asia and Europe get more committed to the Chinese connectivity plan, leaving India isolated.
In a major public diplomacy exercise aimed at consolidating commitment of countries to the BRI, China has announced scholarships for at least 3,000 students from countries and regions around BRI. The plan is an extension of China’s efforts to build an international group of students who come from abroad to study in China. Upon returning to their home countries, many of these students act as ‘ambassadors’ for China, and contribute to maintenance of good relations between China and their countries. These students are also effective in cultivating business synergies between China and their countries as most of them study finance, communications, transport and other applied sciences and management in China and move on to corporate or industrial careers. Over the years, China has also begun offering several taught courses in English enabling more and more foreign students to enrol in the graduate and post-graduate programmes of its universities.
China’s aggressive ‘globalisation’ of its higher education coupled with generous funding has enabled it to develop into a major education hub in the region. Students from Central Asia, Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa flock to China in large numbers. The BRI encompasses all these regions and their member countries. With Europe committing enthusiastically to BRI, more students from Europe, particularly the east and south, are expected to move to China. With the sea-arm of the BRI, the maritime silk route, now extending to South Pacific Islands, students from these countries to China should increase as well.
China’s long-term vision for capitalising strategic benefits of BRI is not limited to scholarships. It extends to allowing back and forth mobility of people between the BRI regions and the Chinese mainland. By signing mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) on academic degrees with several countries around the BRI, China has ensured students from the latter studying in mainland don’t have difficulties in getting jobs back home. MRAs make these students eligible for jobs in mainland China and other BRI countries. Indeed, China is likely to scale up education engagement through BRI by working on more MRAs in technical and professional disciplines among BRI countries.
For many countries, the economic appeal of BRI includes the possibility of their students getting access to a skills and labour market that includes not only mainland China and Hong Kong, but also higher education hubs like Europe, Australia and Singapore. Universities from the latter already have presence in China, such as the China-Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and offshore campuses Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Southeast Universities. Many countries from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa visualise the BRI and its education aspect as an incredible opportunity for its students. In the long-run China can carry its strategic engagement further by seamlessly integrating education sectors of BRI countries with their labour markets. Such a strategy would be an entirely win-win outcome at a time when labour surplus countries from Asia and Africa are looking to push their people to jobs beyond national borders with limited success as many segments of the global labour market are creating new entry barriers.
The large-scale education-oriented public diplomacy ensures greater political legitimacy of BRI and fetches more strategic dividends for China. China is able to use its financial muscle for not only getting infrastructure projects going along the BRI, but also utilise the initiative for uplifting itself as a global education hub. The resultant strategic gains complicate strategic prospects for India.
India has refrained from committing to the BRI as it feels the project primarily serves Chinese national interests. Indeed, it does. But China has been able to successfully merge national interests, primarily long-term economic interests, of most other countries around the BRI with its own interests. Political legitimacy of BRI is being driven by the fact that China’s economic and strategic gains from the project are inclusive of those involved in it. In this respect, BRI is assuming significance as an initiative capable of generating long-term regional and global economic gains. The importance of this impression is significant at a time when countries are searching pan-regional prosperity solutions. The US disregard for multi-country economic frameworks like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Deal have forced countries to look elsewhere for major power-led regional solutions. China and BRI has emerged a credible alternative for many.
By staying non-committal to the BRI, India is isolating itself in a regional space that is reordering itself around the evolution of the initiative. It might soon find its strategic appeal getting undermined by the BRI. There is little possibility of it producing alternative initiatives matching up to China in funds and strategic appeal. A fresh look at BRI for maximising economic interests, while safeguarding security imperatives is a worthwhile strategy. Otherwise, time might run out for options.