Silk Road Diplomacy

Deconstructing Beijing's toolkit to influence South and Central Asia

Full Report: Silk Road Diplomacy
Press Release: China's public diplomacy spending in South and Central Asia quantified

Quantifying Beijing's public diplomacy in South and Central Asia

How do these countries perceive Beijing’s public diplomacy overtures and its influence?

Financial Diplomacy

Chinese official finance, 2000-2017

Beijing's financial diplomacy dwarfs its other public diplomacy tools in terms of sheer scale and visibility. For the period 2000-2017, AidData uncovered $126 billion in committed, implemented or completed projects in the SCA region by official Chinese agencies and banks. Of this, some $120 billion is in infrastructure investments. Eighty-five percent of infrastructure investments go to new construction projects, and two countries in particular captured half of Beijing’s financial diplomacy investments: Pakistan—an early signatory to the Belt and Road Initiative—and Kazakhstan.

The Chinese government’s funding of development projects in other countries is not new to BRI or the tenure of President Xi Jinping. From initially low levels of support, Beijing's financial diplomacy increased sharply beginning as early as 2008. To assemble this new data, AidData researchers collected information on grants, concessional loans, non-concessional loans from Chinese government agencies, policy banks, state-owned commercial banks, and investment funds.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Military Diplomacy

Military-to-military diplomacy, 2003-2016

Military diplomacy is another important part of Beijing's public diplomacy toolkit. Beijing has historically oriented much of its military diplomacy towards major powers such as Russia and the US, as well as other Asian countries along China’s periphery. Military-to-military relations are often more durable than those of civilian counterparts, who are more easily voted in and out of power.

Visits between senior PLA leaders and their counterparts accounted for the bulk of Beijing's military-to-military overtures in SCA countries between 2003 and 2016. But the PLA also increased military diplomacy activities across the board, particularly under President Xi’s tenure, with joint military exercises as a noteworthy growth area. Nearly a third of these exercises were with Pakistan, such as the Sino-Pakistani Shaheen exercise series. Beijing recognizes Russia’s role as the dominant regional security provider in Central Asia, and has instead emphasized activities there which project its economic soft power. In this respect, it comes as no surprise that South Asia received substantially more of the PLA’s military diplomacy overtures (68 percent) than Central Asia.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Elite-to-Elite Diplomacy

Official visits, 2000-2017

Beijing pays substantially more attention to cultivating government diplomacy in South Asian countries. Between 2000 and 2017, there were 1,039 visits between Chinese government officials and their South Asian counterparts—more than in Central Asia (722). Kazakhstan, which accounts for the second largest number of total government visits after India, is a notable exception to this predominant focus on South Asia. Beijing likely recognizes the strategic value of both Kazakhstan and India as dominant regional players, whose leaders set the tone for the foreign policy and diplomatic relations of smaller countries in their respective subregions.

Visits between Chinese and SCA government leaders are largely driven by SCA senior leaders visiting China than vice versa. SCA officials may be trying harder to woo Beijing than the other way around. Alternatively, Beijing may be more willing to foot the bill to host foreign officials to participate in lavish junkets that create favorable impressions of China and its development.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Exchange Diplomacy

Sister cities established, as of 2018

Since 1973, Beijing has used sister city agreements which “twin” a Chinese city, town or province with a foreign counterpart to strengthen commercial, cultural, and social ties with municipal officials and business leaders in other countries. Unlike Confucius Institutes (see below) sister city agreements are more evenly distributed between South Asia and Central Asia, with Kyrgyzstan receiving the most attention, followed closely by Kazakhstan.

The Chinese government launched its first sister city in the SCA region with Pakistan in 1984, but the bulk of new agreements were signed between 2013 and 2016. It may be the case that President Xi Jinping views sister city agreements as part of a broader package of inducements, along with new trade and investment deals, to encourage countries to sign on to the BRI. Notably, we see an uptick in new sister city agreements beginning in 2013, the year Xi assumed the presidency and announced BRI as his signature foreign policy agenda. Five years later, of the roughly 2,600 sister city and province relations that China has globally, more than 700 cities are in countries involved in the BRI.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Cultural Diplomacy

Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, 2005-2018

A centerpiece of Beijing's soft power overtures globally, Confucius Institutes (CIs) are Chinese government-funded educational institutions that teach Chinese language, culture, and history in partnership with a host university in a recipient country. Beijing opened up 64 new Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms (CCs) in the SCA region from 2000 to 2018. Schools and universities must apply to the Chinese government to receive a Confucius establishment, so the presence of these institutes depends as much on demand from and preferences of SCA countries as it does on Beijing’s intentions.

However, there are two important differences in how the Chinese government appears to be operating in the SCA region compared to elsewhere. Beijing opened substantially fewer Confucius establishment in the region (58 as of 2016) than the 248 institutions in the East Asia and Pacific region during the same time period. And while there has been substantial media attention paid to CIs at the university-level in other countries, 58 percent of Confucius establishments in the SCA region were CCs at the primary or secondary level. The preponderance of these establishments were targeted towards a single country: Kyrgyzstan.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Student Exchange Diplomacy

Chinese government scholarships, 2010-2018

For the eight SCA countries where we have comparable data over time, the number of Chinese government scholarships announced each year more than tripled between 2010 and 2018. One-third of these 10,000 scholarships went to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both countries that border China, where Beijing is doubling down on its efforts to strengthen people-to-people ties. Beijing may be wielding public diplomacy tools in mutually reinforcing ways: financial diplomacy bolsters China’s image as an attractive study abroad destination, while the scholarships it provides may dampen criticism of its BRI infrastructure projects.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Students inbound to China, 2000-2018

Between 2000 and 2018, the number of international students in China rose to around 500,000—a ten-fold increase. Two-thirds of international students studying in China hailed from BRI countries and 61 percent of Chinese government scholarships in 2016 were awarded to students from BRI countries.

This trend could be partly supply-side driven, as Beijing may view scholarships as a way to quell potential protests against BRI projects, some of which are beset by allegations of corruption, flouted environmental regulations, and deprivation of employment opportunities for locals. However, it is also plausible that the Chinese government's large-scale infrastructure investments in SCA countries via BRI may be stoking demand for study abroad opportunities, as young people are impressed by China’s economic clout and view studying in China as opening up new economic opportunities both at home and abroad.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Students inbound to China per capita, 2000-2018

In absolute terms, South Asia accounted for 70 percent of all students from SCA countries studying in China in 2017. However, when we adjust for population size, a different picture emerges: Central Asia supplied 12 times the number of students per 100,000 persons aged 15-44 as did South Asia.

SCA nationals that study in China are exposed to Chinese cultural values, norms, and policy positions, which can benefit Beijing’s interests in two ways. First,
returning students can share these experiences with their networks and advocate for China-friendly positions and policies. This can improve general attitudes and perceptions toward China. Second, today’s students may become tomorrow’s leaders, and therefore sympathy or affinity for China may have a more profound effect in key policy decisions that involve China.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Media Diplomacy

Media outreach by Chinese senior leaders, 2002-2017

Senior leaders—including the Chinese President, Premier, Vice President, and Vice Premier—are a important tool of Beijing’s informational diplomacy. From 2002 to 2017, this group gave 27 interviews to SCA media outlets, while the Chinese President and Premier held an additional 32 press briefings with SCA media, including eight regional briefings alongside Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders.

Half of this high-level media engagement by Chinese senior leaders was oriented towards just two SCA countries: India and Kazakhstan. Chinese senior leaders also penned and placed 12 op-eds in major media outlets across the SCA region from 2013 to 2017; however, this represents a mere 16 percent of the 75 such op-eds they published globally.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

About Silk Road Diplomacy

Beijing engages in public diplomacy—a collection of instruments used to influence the perceptions, preferences, and actions of citizens and leaders in another country—as a means to win over foreign publics and advance its national interests. Over the past two decades, Chinese leaders have sought to manage negative reactions to China’s growing military and economic strength, as well as to win friends and allies to realize Beijing’s global ambitions. While its aspirations may be global, Beijing takes a special interest in cultivating closer relations within China’s greater periphery, including the countries of South and Central Asia (SCA).

To understand Beijing's reach and influence across this strategic region, AidData, in collaboration with the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) and the China Power Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), collected an unprecedented amount of qualitative and quantitative data on Beijing’s public diplomacy in 13 SCA countries from 2000 through 2018. In Silk Road Diplomacy, the authors analyze this data to illuminate which tools Beijing is deploying, with whom, and to what effects for recipient countries and strategic competitors.

In partnership with AidData, CSIS, and ASPI, the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi co-hosted a conference to launch the report on December 10th, 2019. Four panel discussions and a lunch keynote, all featuring experts from around the world, dove deeper into the reach and influence of Chinese public diplomacy and the policy implications for countries across South and Central Asia.


This study was conducted with generous support from the United States Department of State and in partnership with the Asia Society Policy Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report's findings and conclusions are those of its authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of funder and partner organizations.

How was the data collected?

Data on Chinese financial, cultural, exchange, and elite-to-elite diplomacy activities was collected for this report from a range of quantitative and qualitative sources:

  • Projects qualifying as financial diplomacy were drawn from AidData's Global Chinese Official Finance Dataset, 2000-2014, Version 1.0, with AidData's TUFF (Tracking Underreported Financial Flows) methodology applied to extend coverage through 2017. To assemble this data, AidData researchers collected information on grants, concessional loans, non-concessional loans from Chinese government agencies, policy banks, state-owned commercial banks, and investment funds.
  • Information on Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, sister cities, cultural centers and events, official visits, military activities, student exchange, and scholarships was sourced variously from: the China Foreign Affairs Yearbooks; Chinese Embassy websites; the China International Friendship City Association; Confucius Institute Annual Development Reports; Hanban Annual Reports; the Hanban website; data provided by Allen et al. (2017); and supplemental targeted Internet searches.
  • In addition to quantitative data, on-the-ground insights were captured from semi-structured interviews with 216 individuals from 145 organizations and agencies across six SCA case study countries: Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan. These individuals comprised government officials, private sector leaders, civil society representatives, journalists, academics, foreign diplomats, and the representatives of international organizations.

Alex Wooley

Director of Partnerships and Communications