Title: Pen, Politics, and Power – How China and India Wield Soft Power through Education Diplomacy in South Asia 

Author: Nirjan Rai, Saumitra Neupane, Anurag Acharya

Year of Publication: 2023


In global diplomacy, countries use a mix of hard and soft power tactics to compete for influence. While contentious tools like economic sanctions and military force remain crucial, soft power emphasizes attraction over coercion, utilizing tools like foreign aid and cultural diplomacy. Education diplomacy, or the use of international education as a diplomatic strategy, is a significant soft power approach used by Western powers and rising nations like China to forge ties, advance interests, and tackle global issues.

In South Asia, competition for influence through soft power is escalating amid global shifts. India, the regional hegemon, faces pressure from China’s rise as a superpower, with the West increasingly relying on India to counterbalance China. Both nations employ soft power tactics like infrastructure and education diplomacy to sway South Asian nations. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has expanded its influence, challenging India’s dominance, while educational diplomacy serves as a key avenue for both countries to strengthen ties and project cultural influence.

This research aims to explore the intricacies of educational diplomacy strategies employed by these two regional powers amid this pivotal shift in South Asian geopolitics. While much attention has been given to China’s expanding influence, understanding China’s strategy requires context. This paper does not seek to pit one country’s educational diplomacy against another’s. Instead, by focusing on Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, we aim to document, comprehend, and elucidate the complexities and evolution of their respective strategies.


India strategically uses education diplomacy to enhance its influence in South Asia and globally. This approach has evolved over time, driven by the aspirations of its leaders and the changing global context. The emphasis on education and cultural exchanges can be traced back to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He established the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to promote Indian language, literature, and arts and the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program to transfer technical knowledge to partner countries.

In the early 1990s, facing a severe fiscal crisis, India initiated economic reforms that yielded substantial benefits and boosted its confidence as a regional and rising global power. India made a conscious attempt to redefine its image, portraying itself as a net provider of aid by reducing incoming aid and increasing foreign assistance. Education diplomacy was also part of this rebranding effort, as shown by the increase in scholarships, the proposal to establish South Asia University, and the gradual internationalization of higher education through IGNOU.

Since 2014, as China emerged as a global superpower under Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been keen to project India’s power through soft power. Modi aimed to counter China’s growing influence, particularly in the region, and project India’s global presence. Education diplomacy remains a key element of India’s soft power strategy, with an increase in scholarships and technical training programs, the launch of the Study in India initiative, and policies to regulate foreign universities entering India.

Observations Of Indian Education Diplomacy in South Asia

India’s education diplomacy is part of its broader foreign policy strategy, shaped by historical, cultural, political, and economic factors. However, India’s influence is sometimes resented by neighbors, who see interference in their internal affairs and view China as an alternative. India is aware of China’s growing regional influence and seeks to find an appropriate response.

India’s “neighborhood first” policy aims to strengthen relations through soft power approaches, including education diplomacy. The significant number of scholarships and training programs offered to South Asian countries underscores India’s regional focus. However, India also seeks to expand its influence beyond its immediate neighbors, with growing interest in Africa and Southeast Asia.

India’s education diplomacy is helped by historical and cultural ties with neighboring countries, making South Asia the largest source of foreign students in India. Bollywood’s influence and the widespread use of English make navigation easier for foreign students. Prestigious institutions like the IITs and the affordability of education attract South Asian students seeking both technical and non-technical courses. India’s economic growth and the presence of multinational companies create appealing professional opportunities for students pursuing higher education in the country.


China recognizes soft power as an important element of its foreign policy. This is evident not only through its investments in the BRI but also its desire to host major sports events and provide humanitarian assistance. Education diplomacy is a key part of this, and China has made significant efforts to promote its international appeal through educational initiatives.

China’s education diplomacy began in the early years of the People’s Republic, promoting its socialist vision through scholarships to communist-aligned countries. However, during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, China suspended international student programs to focus on domestic ideological campaigns. Under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership in the late 1970s, China embarked on major reforms that opened up its economy, marking a significant turning point in education diplomacy. Deng encouraged Chinese students to study abroad and invited international students to China to benefit from global academic exchanges and learn from foreign educational systems.

In 1996, China established the Chinese Scholarship Council to manage all government scholarships. For international students, these include the Chinese Government Scholarships and the Silk Road Scholarships, among others. They generally cover tuition, accommodation, medical insurance, and a stipend for living expenses. Besides CSC-administered scholarships, provincial and municipal governments offer many others for international students to study in their regions.

China’s education diplomacy has been bolstered by sustained economic growth and investments in tertiary education. This momentum continued with China’s emergence as a superpower and Xi Jinping’s rise to leadership. The government implemented initiatives like the “Double World-Class Project” to elevate the quality and international standing of Chinese universities. By improving the quality and reputation of higher education, China seeks to attract more international students and foster academic collaborations with universities in South Asia and beyond.

Another key player in China’s education diplomacy is the Confucius Institute. Established in 2004, these institutes promote Chinese culture and support Mandarin language teaching worldwide. They are partnerships between Chinese universities and academic institutions in host countries. China also offers Confucius Institute Scholarships to develop Mandarin experts and a pool of Chinese language teachers, funding bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages.

Observations Of Chinese Education Diplomacy in South Asia

China’s education diplomacy in South Asia is closely intertwined with its broader foreign policy objectives, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Education diplomacy sits within the overall BRI strategy, promoting cultural exchanges, building people-to-people connections, and enhancing cooperation between China and South Asian nations.

China has prioritized improving the quality of its education and internationalizing its higher education institutions. Initiatives like the “Double World-Class Project” aim to develop Chinese institutions at par with Western counterparts. Other efforts include allowing Western universities to establish satellite campuses in collaboration with local universities. As a result, there are now over two dozen such institutions in China affiliated with Western universities, helping China position itself as an alternative to the West in higher education.

China’s emergence as a political and economic superpower, with promising development prospects, attracts many South Asian students. “Modern degrees” in fields like robotics and artificial intelligence appeal to those seeking cutting-edge education. Moreover, a Chinese degree coupled with language and cultural knowledge is advantageous for placements in Chinese companies investing in home countries or establishing business partnerships.

China recognizes the challenges its language presents to potential students and is investing in helping them overcome these obstacles. The government requires students to take a foundational program that focuses on language proficiency and cultural adaptation. The longer-term strategy involves promoting Chinese language and culture through Confucius Institutes worldwide.


Projections and Perceptions

The primary drivers of education diplomacy as a foreign policy tool are similar for all countries: project power and influence perceptions, politics, and policies. This is evident in how China and India execute their education diplomacy in South Asia, each vying to project influence in a way that leverages regional geopolitics.

China uses education diplomacy to attract and impress students, positioning itself as an alternative to the Western development narrative. It aims to influence neighboring countries to adopt friendly positions on its preferred policies, such as Tibet and Taiwan, while ensuring a favorable environment for its investments and market access. As a result, China has become the third-largest host of international students and a preferred destination for South Asian students.

Historically, India’s education diplomacy projected its dominant regional position. With reputable institutions, easy access, and cultural similarities, India was once the preferred destination for many in South Asia. However, as China’s regional presence has grown, India has responded with a renewed focus on infrastructure and connectivity. Despite this, questions remain about India’s effectiveness in employing education diplomacy.

Given this backdrop, it is unsurprising that education diplomacy is inherently political. In both China and India, embassies play a pivotal role, from disseminating program information to endorsing scholarship applicants. The Chinese Embassy often takes a more facilitative role, serving as a crucial link between applicants and universities due to language barriers. For both nations, education policy is intertwined with broader foreign policy goals, forming a core part of their diplomatic strategies.

The Dynamics of Education Diplomacy in South Asia

The trend of South Asian students pursuing higher education in China is relatively new but rapidly growing. Data show that China hosts nearly twice as many South Asian students as India. Although half of these students are from Pakistan, for whom India is not an option (by choice or compulsion), the remaining number matches those in India, reflecting “the subtle power shift currently underway in the South Asian region.”

China attracts South Asian students due to several factors. Many in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka perceive China favorably as a counterbalance to India’s alleged interference in their domestic politics. Additionally, China’s rapid economic growth and extensive infrastructure development serve as an attractive model. The biggest draw, however, is the global recognition of Chinese universities. Initiatives like the ‘Double First Class’ plan to cultivate world-class institutions and international recruitment have elevated China’s education system, making it a desirable destination and a powerful tool of soft diplomacy.

Despite having reputable institutions and shared cultural ties, India hasn’t matched China’s appeal. Indian universities appear less attractive due to a lack of a concerted government strategy. While legacy institutions like the IITs maintain high standards, their influence is largely regional. India’s internationalization efforts, like IGNOU, fall short of China’s initiatives.

The QS World University Rankings illustrate this disparity. In 2022, several Chinese universities ranked near the top, with Peking University at 12, Tsinghua University at 14, and Fudan University at 34. Indian institutions, like the Indian Institute of Science (155th) and IIT Bombay (172nd), did not appear until after the top 150. From 2018 to 2022, Chinese universities significantly improved their rankings, while Indian universities showed limited progress. While these rankings have their limitations, they influence public perception and impact international student choices.

Versus Western Forms of Education Diplomacy

Western countries like the US, UK, and Australia also conduct their own education diplomacy. They have notable scholarship programs such as Fulbright, Chevening, and Australia Awards, along with short-term training and capacity development initiatives. They are also top destinations for international students, supported by private entities and government backing.

However, the main difference between Western and non-Western initiatives lies in the perceived political motivations behind these programs. While all education diplomacy involves political influence, Western initiatives are seen as less political. For example, China’s Confucius Institutes are criticized, especially by Western critics, as government propaganda tools. Western institutions with similar mandates, such as the British Council and Alliance Française, do not receive the same level of criticism, as they are seen to be largely independent of their governments.

Finally, students view Indian and Chinese universities as temporary stops to earn a degree, network, or work briefly before returning home. In contrast, many see Western universities, particularly in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada, as pathways to permanent migration due to favorable immigration policies for high-skilled international students. This difference explains why many regard India and China as stepping stones rather than final destinations.