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Anthropology of Soft Diplomacy: Higher Education in Sino-Danish Partnerships

About the project

In 2008, consortium of 8 Danish universities collaborated with the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) to set up the Sino-Danish Centre for Education and Research (SDC) in Beijing. Meanwhile, Chinese universities had linked with universities in Denmark and elsewhere in the world to set up 500 Confucius Institutes (CI).

While branch/joint campuses have become a trendy form of international collaboration in higher education, these two forms of Sino-foreign institutions distinguish themselves from most other cross-border partnerships due to their pivotal roles in national strategies and the multiple diplomatic missions they have undertaken.

China and Denmark’s strategies for moving into the global knowledge economy differ vastly, but are congenial in their mobilization of higher education institutions, not only as knowledge producers, but as important instruments of soft diplomacy. Both countries utilize educational activities and networks to foster soft power, which is defined as attraction and persuasion designed to elicit cooperation.

Soft power arises from the attractiveness of a nation’s values, culture and policies, as opposed to “hard power” derived from military or economic weapons. The soft power of higher education has rarely been considered, but its rising importance is signalled by China recognizing SDC as an ideal model for Sino-Foreign collaboration and by its huge investment in Confucius Institutes. Moreover, China’s New Silk Road project uses Sino-Foreign joint campuses as instruments to expand soft diplomacy.

Previous research on branch/joint campuses has usually focused on their pedagogies, curriculum and the history and operation of their research collaborations, rarely recognising their geopolitical dimension and interface with international relations. This research project will systematically investigate and compare the two campuses of a CI and the SDC to gain insights into how higher education and soft diplomacy mutually construct each other in the process of internationalizing higher education.

Research questions

  1. Why and how do nation states use higher education in ‘soft diplomacy’?
  2. How do Sino-Danish partnerships (CI and SDC) operate in practice? How do their diplomatic roles interact with their function as an educational institution?
  3. How is the understanding of their operations enhanced by developing an ‘anthropology of soft diplomacy’?

The project will study soft diplomacy by extending the new field of ‘anthropology of policy’ (AoP) to foreign policy and by making methodological and theoretical alliances with political scientists engaged in interpretive policy analysis (IPA).

An advisory board includes Chinese and Danish experts on higher education, international relations and geopolitics. The project  also joins forces with scholars gathered by the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges who study higher education and research cooperation between China and Europe in the context of China’s New Silk Road project. These networks provide a platform to study Sino-Danish partnerships in higher education and research comprehensively from various disciplines and theoretical frameworks.