Confucius Institutes in the Indo-Pacific: Propaganda or Win-Win Cooperation?

Last summer, then-candidate for British prime minister Rishi Sunak tweeted that he would close all thirty of the kingdom’s Confucius Institutes (CIs) if elected. Security Minister Tom Tugendhat confirmed this pledge during a debate in the House of Commons in November, calling CIs a “threat to civil liberties.” This move follows efforts over the past few years by countries such as the United States and Australia to shut down or restrict funding to the language and cultural learning centers affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education. It stands in sharp contrast with their treatment by governments in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, who primarily view CIs as a way to increase economic opportunities for their populations through cultivating Mandarin literacy. Although CIs in the West are often criticized for spreading Chinese Communist Party propaganda and undermining academic freedom, research from Southeast Asia and the Pacific shows that CIs in the region mostly serve as cultural resources for the Chinese diaspora population, while Western institutions of higher education are still preferred among students.

The case for Mandarin literacy

There are 41 CIs in Southeast Asia, and Thailand alone has 16—the second-highest number in Asia after South Korea. The most obvious reasons for why Mandarin language learning has been more popular in Southeast Asia than the West are the size of the Chinese diaspora population, and the perception that China’s economic influence will provide Mandarin speakers with more job opportunities. Of the estimated 40 million people who make up the ethnic Chinese diaspora, roughly 30 million live in Southeast Asia. Although the majority of this diaspora is from southern China and thus speak Chinese dialects other than Mandarin, Confucius Institutes are still appealing as cultural centers that offer programming from calligraphy and cooking lessons to singing competitions. ASEAN is China’s largest trading partner, and the tourism industry in the region is expected to rebound in 2023 with the return of Chinese tourists. 

Individual studies from different Southeast Asian countries show that the localization of CIs has allowed them to more deftly navigate cultural differences and develop curricula more suited to domestic populations. In countries with significant Chinese diaspora populations, the impact of CIs in spreading mainland Chinese culture and ideas is muted because of the presence of other educational resources on the ground for people to learn Chinese. A study on Singapore’s only CI at Nanyang Technological University found that educational materials and courses were adapted to the local population’s needs and interests, such as limiting depictions of China in children’s materials to traditional festivals and offering programming on the history of the Chinese and Malay community in Singapore. The study also argues that Singapore’s institutionalized Chinese language education system allows the CI to draw from local resources and have more autonomy in its administration and personnel management. 

In countries that have historically distrusted China, CIs have adapted to different cultural expectations to survive. Their presence has also had a minimal impact on changing negative attitudes towards China, rebutting the common argument that they spread Communist Party propaganda. In Indonesia, CIs are called Mandarin Language Centers (Pusat Bahasa Mandarin, or PBM), the result of almost two years of negotiations with the Chinese government after Indonesian counterparts expressed concerns that setting up a “Confucius Institute” would lead to an imbalance with other religious centers. Nonetheless, the presence of CIs in Indonesia has not helped improve China’s image or minimize historical anti-Chinese animosity. Similarly, in the Philippines, where anti-Chinese sentiment is prevalent due to ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, exposure to coursework at CIs has not significantly swayed students’ overall perception of China.

In the Pacific Islands, three CIs are operational, with the University of the South Pacific (USP) having several satellite Confucius classrooms across the region. These classrooms facilitate Chinese language education, which is viewed by institutions and students as a pragmatic means of engaging with a rising Chinese business and tourist presence. This is unsurprising considering that China is a considerable source of development aid and total trade volume with the Pacific Islands has risen 13 percent annually from 1992 to 2021. Furthermore, nearly 100,000 Chinese tourists traveled to the South Pacific every year prior to the pandemic. To meet rising demand for Mandarin language skills, CIs, like that at the National University of Samoa, offer specific trainings for Samoa Tourism Authority Staff as well as employees of the Samoan Ministry of Customs and Revenue to engage with Chinese counterparts. Engagement also includes the possibility to earn the Confucius Institute Scholarship offering financial aid and opportunities for travel, something that is coveted by many Pacific students.

A more notable characteristic of CIs in the Pacific is the emphasis on regional as well as bilateral engagement through cultural and language education. Whereas CIs in Southeast Asia are attuned to localizing their curricula to speak to the needs of national dynamics, CIs in the Pacific Islands, particularly at USP, recognize the power of catering to regional identity. According to a press release detailing CI-USP’s Strategic Plan 2022-2026, the CI is developing to support the university’s own “Shaping Pacific Futures strategic plan that is rooted in Pacific regional thinking and education. In part, this focus on Pacific regionalism is pragmatic with USP itself being a regional university by design. At the same time, CI-USP’s commitment to a regional focus rationalizes deeper engagement with Pacific societies hosting satellite campuses that would otherwise lack Chinese educational opportunities. Extrapolated, this regionalized educational ethos may echo Chinese regional engagement approaches and attempts to develop region-wide agreements that appeal to the Pacific’s collective identity rhetoric.

More presence ≠ More trust

One conclusion that may be tempting to draw is that the presence and growth of CIs in Southeast Asia and the Pacific is a sign that those regions are becoming increasingly pro-China. However, according to the 2023 ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia survey, which measures elite opinion across the region on geopolitical developments, partnerships, and current affairs, the United States remains the country of choice for tertiary education. 25.2 percent of regional respondents would rather send themselves or their child to a U.S. university, compared to the 5.4 percent who felt the same about China. Even Hun Manet, widely expected to be the next prime minister of Cambodia—which is arguably the most pro-China nation in Southeast Asia—attended West Point and New York University. In the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, which ranks the relative power of states in Asia, China’s 2023 score was 2.1 points lower than last year’s, with the most points lost in the cultural influence category. This is not to say that Chinese media has not been making headway in Southeast Asia and influencing public opinion, but rather that CIs have not played a major role in this media campaign.

Likewise, in the Pacific Islands, observers must be careful not to extrapolate conclusions on the cultural influence of CIs in the Pacific. While educational opportunities for Pacific Islanders in mainland China are expanding, little evidence exists to suggest that CIs, and Chinese educational opportunities generally, increase soft power. Journalist interviews of CI students at USP even revealed concerns over potential ideological dangers from China and the erosion of traditional culture. A broader survey of Pacific university students from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Fiji, both CI hosting countries, expressed nuanced concerns over China’s presence in the Pacific. 82 percent of respondents stated they would prefer scholarships from traditional partners over China. Not only that, less than half (48 percent) of interviewed Fijian students want more Chinese scholarships and just barely over half (52 percent) of PNG students would like more. Such trepidations stand in contrast to views toward Western programs like the Australian Award Scholarship Programme, of which Pacific Islander students highlighted the familiarity and high regard that the scholarship holds within their communities. And as great power competition continues to intensify within the region, it is possible that CIs will fall under suspicion. Indeed, the Solomon Islands has become a subject of regional scrutiny for its security pact with China and had to quell violent protests domestically, in part motivated by changes of diplomatic allegiance towards Beijing. In several other Pacific Island countries, diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Compacts of Free Association with the United States, and states of free association status with New Zealand may be other factors that limit Chinese influence.

Conclusion 

In many ways, Confucius Institutes can be viewed as a form of South-South cooperation, which describes collaboration among developing countries in the Global South and has been used by China to characterize its relationships with South American and African countries. The proliferation of CIs in Southeast Asia and the Pacific is less a marker of China’s political hegemony and trustworthiness, but more a reflection of China’s economic impact increasing the value of Mandarin language skills. At the same time, rather than vilifying CIs, the United States and its allies should understand that Indo-Pacific countries have their own reasons for keeping CIs open and focus on their own educational opportunities and programming for these regions.

Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jared Tupuola is a program manager and research associate with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and the Stephenson Ocean Security Project at CSIS.

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Karen Lee

Karen Lee

Former Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program

Jared Tupuola

Former Program Manager and Research Associate, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative