China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Reordering the Region and Regionalising Higher Education

Change log
Xu, Bowen 

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) unveiled by the Chinese Government in 2013 is an important geo-political, and geo-economic strategy aimed at reconnecting the ancient Silk Road for enhancing Eurasian development and prosperity. Economically, the BRI is a new development strategy for China aimed at resolving internal accumulation challenges. Geopolitically, the BRI reconnects China to Eurasia by mobilising the old Silk Road metaphor to drive a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and extend southward to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Africa through a new 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Politically, the BRI emerges out of China’s global resurgence as part of a grand national development and policy strategy, thus repositioning China on the global stage.

Revitalising the Silk Road has the potential to reshape much of the region’s commerce, politics and culture. While extensive analysis concentrates on the political and economic aspects of the initiative, to date there is little knowledge on how higher education (HE) as a policy area, and a cultural infrastructure, has been incorporated into the BRI design. This in turn raises the question of how HE is bringing about a transformation in the wider Belt and Road region. This thesis explores two internally related dynamics.

Taking higher education as a strategically selective policy mechanism for constructing the 21st century Silk Road, this study explores the relationship between higher education policy, its institutional development, and the BRI as a region-building project. It conceptualises the unfolding of the Chinese-led BRI as an emergent regionalising initiative and discusses its implications for realising a nascent regional higher education space. Theoretically, the study draws upon a cultural political economy approach to transnational region building to focus attention on: (i) the ways in which new structuring projects are advanced and meanings negotiated, through (ii) its endogenous and exogenous dynamics. Methodologically, this study draws on multiple methods: the analysis of policies driving the BRI beginning in 2013; semi-structured interviews with key commentators on the BRI; media coverage; and a growing secondary literature tracking the development of the BRI.

Findings reveal the BRI has not only incorporated higher education in its blueprint, but also facilitates higher education regional cooperation and development as part of China’s quest for building Belt and Road Educational Community. Specifically, I argue that this initiative can also be understood as a nascent regional higher education space in East Asia/Eurasia that is currently under construction. As the BRI and higher education developments in this transnationalising space are relatively new, experimental, and not institutionally embedded, it is difficult to predict its final form. Nevertheless, the BRI is helping reposition Chinese universities as regional and global actors.

Robertson, Susan
China, Belt and Road Initiative, Region-Building, Higher Education, Cultural Political Economy, Education Policy
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge