In order to cope with the complex demands of its growing global role, China has been keeping a closer eye on international affairs. Nowhere is this clearer than in China’s recent push to foster area studies development within nation’s top educational institutions. The Inter-American Dialogue’s recent report, Learning Latin America: China’s Strategy for Area Studies Development, traces the gradual development of China’s area studies, with an in-depth look at Chinese study of the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region.
China’s efforts to develop foreign expertise are supported by a robust policy framework. Launched by the Ministry of Education in 2011, China’s “Regional and Country Studies Bases” policy calls for a nation-wide network of area studies centers to carry out basic and applied research on foreign regions and subregions, from the Persian Gulf to the Amazon and beyond. This includes a two-step registration and accreditation process, as outlined by the Ministry of Education, with related incentives, including the possibility of $45,000-$75,260 in center funding.
The requirements for center registration are relatively straightforward. For example, centers must provide evidence of a clear organizational structure, designate office space, and establish an “academic research institution,” such as a Confucius Institute, in the center’s geographic area of focus. To achieve full accreditation, area studies centers must hold at least one course on the center’s area of specialty and one annual scholarly meeting, among other requirements.
Although the project is academic in substance, the goal of the area studies enterprise is noticeably pragmatic: to inform China’s overseas engagement. The centers’ primary function, according to relevant government documents, is to provide consultation services to the state, while also developing a crop of cross-disciplinary regional studies experts. In the words of former Vice Minister of Education Hao Ping, the initiative aims to meet state “demands” to “train a large group of internationalized specialists who would have an international outlook, be familiar with international norms, and be capable of participating in international affairs and competition.”
The exact number of area studies centers is difficult to pinpoint, but hundreds are now evident across China. To date, China has some 60 centers dedicated to the LAC region alone, although only 16 of them have successfully registered in accordance with the government’s area studies policy. Some, such as the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, are sizable, with established reputations. Others, such as Qingdao University’s Latin America Center, are small upstarts with little to show in the way of staff or content. A few, like the Center for Mexican Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University and the Center for China-Latin America Management Studies at Tsinghua University, conduct research on particular countries or disciplines.
China’s pursuit of area studies expertise has also focused to a considerable degree on foreign language acquisition. The country’s foreign language departments are growing as rapidly as area studies centers, if not more so in some cases. To date, China has roughly 120 Spanish language and 40 Portuguese language departments around the country, which train China’s future academics, interpreters, and diplomats.
The great irony is that China’s efforts to better understand the outside world are modeled after the United States’ own area studies push, which took place after World War II. In both cases, area studies were promoted by and for the state in response to growing global interests and an expanding risk profile. As the United States turns increasingly inward, however, China is hoping to understand the world in new and increasingly nuanced ways.
Margaret Myers is the Program Director in the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America and the World Program, which focuses on China-Latin America affairs. Ricardo Barrios is the Program Associate in the same program.