Social Ties in Foreign Influence Strategy: Lack of Chinese Spaces in Pakistan

As a result of China’s rise, great power competition has already begun, particularly in the domain of geoeconomics. The public diplomacy strategy forwarded by China encompasses various facets to further geoeconomics. The two imminent features of it are financial diplomacy and social ties in foreign influence strategy reported by the “Corridors of Power“. The geographic proximity, a convergence of interests, and diplomatic relations between China and Pakistan turned into a friendship that has been time-tested over the years. The momentous concentration of Chinese investment and attention has been granted to Pakistan after the conception of an economic venture between the two countries in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As a result, when used in tandem, Beijing’s economic and soft power instruments are undoubtedly the most effective in terms of influencing the international community. The greater Pakistan’s economic involvement and connection with China, the more open it becomes to the Chinese language, culture, and traditions. But, it has been observed by the “Corridors of Power” report published by AidData that though Pakistan is the top recipient of Chinese capital, there is a lack of enough Chinese spaces in Pakistan. On the other hand, as per the report’s insights, American spaces in the form of Lincoln corners are much greater in number in Pakistan. It is important to mention that AidData’s assessment spans eighteen years, from 2000 to 2018.

The said report focuses on the South and Central Asian countries and the Chinese influence on them through public diplomacy. However, this analysis focuses on what China and Pakistan’s social ties lack despite their apparent warmth and closeness. In addition to it, it highlights the overall Chinese approach towards Pakistan by looking at how Beijing has used educational cooperation and student exchange to foster social or people-to-people ties.

The greater Pakistan’s economic involvement and connection with China, the more open it becomes to the Chinese language, culture, and traditions.

Education is a highly effective tool for socialising foreign audiences through public diplomacy. China portrays itself as a major study abroad destination from an economic standpoint to create valuable tuition income from international students and cultivate markets for Chinese commodities, services, and money throughout the developing world. China has used educational cooperation as a geopolitical brand-builder for Chinese leaders seeking to restore respect for Chinese values, culture, and civilisation in the eyes of the world after going global. The educational diplomacy towards Pakistan has served the security objective because it has created an understanding, patience, and readiness, not in elites but the people of Pakistan, for Chinese beliefs and norms and improved the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China (CCP). So, one can say that Chinese educational diplomacy generates the optimal gain not only in the soft power realm but also in hard power through containing foreign minds.

In the South Asian region, particularly Pakistan, two areas are critical to Beijing’s influence strategy. China has state-directed educational assistance provided to Pakistan: (i) financial and (ii) in-kind help. An in-depth examination reveals the measures made by China to encourage study programmes and vocational training options for Pakistani students. Pakistan is the frontrunner for Beijing’s attention as China’s Pakistan friendly policy is evident with a low visa cost of US$26 per person, which seems to be the only criterion. This campaign is fruitful, as Pakistan is the leading supplier of students to study abroad in China. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of Pakistani students studying in China increased by 278 %, representing a dramatic increase in the overall number of students from Pakistan.

In comparison, students from Kyrgyzstan (who must pay US$80 visa fee and provide proof of US$2,500 per year in funds) and Afghanistan (who must pay US$30 fee, undergo a physical exam, and provide proof of US$2,500 per year in funds) face more stringent (though still not as strict as requirements in other destination countries) requirements from the PRC. The above comparison shows clear preference given to students in Pakistan. It confirms the already stated nature of the relationship between Pakistan and China and signifies future prospects in research and education that will bring both countries together.

In an overall assessment of Beijing’s engagement with Pakistan in public diplomacy, AidData’s report highlights the weakness of Beijing as well. It points out that China still has a long way to go in Pakistan to create people-to-person contact because both sides lack enough Chinese spaces in Pakistan to make use of language and culture development centres to consolidate public ties. As part of its efforts to overcome “communication barriers,” the Pakistani parliament enacted a bill in February 2018 recommending “official Chinese language” courses for everyone associated with the CPEC. Moreover, “Corridors of Power” states that countries such as Pakistan, motivated by the financial prospects of cooperation with China, have begun to investigate the possibility of increased government support for Mandarin language acquisition.

Still, currently, the United States is the leader in terms of the total number of language and cultural centres in Pakistan, with an estimated 19 American spaces (18 Lincoln Corners and an Eleanor Roosevelt Corner) across Pakistan, compared to only 5 Confucius Institutes and two Confucius Classrooms in Pakistan.

It is fair to say that public diplomacy in bilateral relations is not a static phenomenon; rather, it moves on by acknowledging strengths and weaknesses. Pakistan must engage with China to offer more spaces for the Chinese language and culture. Not only will it improve intercultural harmony between the two states, but it will also reduce the communication hurdles in mutual work and social settings.

Tauseef Javed

Tauseef Javed works at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) as a Research Associate. He is currently enrolled as a doctoral student at Fujian Normal University in Fuzhou, China. His research focuses on international relations, history, and area studies from an interdisciplinary perspective.

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