On September 30, Chinese state media reported that the construction of a Chinese-sponsored Confucius Institute at the National University of Laos (NUOL) had begun. Xinhua quoted Lao Ambassador to Laos Wang Wentian as saying at the groundbreaking ceremony that the construction would be an “important cooperation measure” in education and people-to-people ties between the two countries. The development spotlights Beijing’s continued efforts to push these institutions as part of the development of its bilateral ties with other countries, including in Southeast Asia, despite lingering challenges.
No details were provided as to how this fit in with the existing Confucius Institute that exists at NUOL. Xinhua quoted the construction as being part of an agreement inked by the two sides last year for China to sponsor the project, which covers an area of 15,600 square meters.
Over the past decade or so, Confucius Institutes – bodies that promote Chinese language and culture as well as cross-country understanding and friendship – have been billed a key part of Chinese “soft power,” even though the reception to them has been quite mixed. Official Chinese government estimates indicate that China has thus far set up more than 500 Confucius Institutes so far in collaboration with around 140 countries and regions.
In Southeast Asia, as of the beginning of 2017, China had set up 31 Confucian Institutes as well as four Chinese Cultural Centers in Thailand, Singapore, Laos, and Cambodia. Beijing has made them an outlet for the development of the people-to-people component of ASEAN-China relations in recent years, particularly in the field of education.
Indeed, just in August, the China-ASEAN Education Information Network and the Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban) organized a summer camp for ASEAN youth was held in Guizhou Minzu University, featuring more than 300 teachers and students from 15 Confucius Institutes from nine ASEAN countries as part of the 2017 China-ASEAN Education Cooperation Week.
Confucius Institutes have played a role in China-Laos ties as well, which continue to be important to develop for Laos’ new leadership within the broader context of the country’s foreign policy (See: “Laos in the ASEAN Spotlight: Opportunities and Challenges”). There is already a Confucius Institute that has been officially operating at the National University of Laos in the Lao capital of Vientiane since 2010. Last year, NUOL, as part of its 20th anniversary, also observed Confucius Institute Day (which falls on September 27 annually), and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and other Lao ministers visited the Institute booth and observed some cultural celebrations as well.