Soft Power, Confucius Institutes, and Latin America and the Caribbean

Trade, loans, and investment have been the instruments of choice for Chinese strategists in the region. But people-to-people ties are increasingly important as well. For this, Confucius Institutes (CIs) are a key strategic tool.


Photo: Confucius Institute at Troy University (Alabama, U.S.) / Source: USC US-China Institute

Latin America and the Caribbean are slowly being moved off the backburner by U.S. foreign policymakers. Growing concerns of a new Cold War between the West, on the one hand, and China and Russia, on the other, are fueling this shift. The intensification of a new Cold War-like environment is also manifest in Latin America and the Caribbean, where China and Russia are the most significant supporters of the dictatorial regimes of Maduro in Venezuela, Ortega-Murillo in Nicaragua, and Díaz-Canel in Cuba. Russia’s indication in early 2022 that it is considering increasing its military assets in Cuba and Venezuela only reinforces this view of a new Cold War seeping into Latin American geopolitics. While Russia seeks to take on the role of disrupter, China is attempting to be a good partner with which regional governments can maintain a long-term relationship. Trade, loans, and investment, helped along by the transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have been the instruments of choice for Chinese strategists in the region. But people-to-people ties are increasingly important as well. For this, Confucius Institutes (CIs) are a key strategic tool.

CIs were created in 2004 by China’s Ministry of Education to advance the Chinese “voice” in the world by teaching Mandarin, instructing Chinese history and other aspects of Chinese civilization, and developing ties with local communities. As of 2022, there are over 500 CIs around the world, including those at universities and in major cities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Additionally, CIs are well-represented in key countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.

While the general functions of China’s cultural centers are readily acceptable as to what countries often do to provide their development narrative, CIs have assumed a more “sinister” role to some given that they are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Considering these linkages, it is no surprise that CIs have actively stifled scholarship in other countries deemed detrimental to Chinese interests. This would include anything that would contradict the CCP’s narrative on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or the South China Sea. In the United States, detractors have also warned that the CCP uses CIs as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda.  

Concerns over the impact of CIs on education and lack of transparency have resulted in their closure at a number of universities in the U.S., as well as in Europe, Japan, and Australia. While there should be concern about CIs functioning as propaganda machines and possible espionage assets, Western audiences often overlook their role in advancing Chinese statecraft. According to Jennifer Hubbert, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies at Lewis & Clark College, CIs “are the most extensive and most future-oriented” components of China’s “massive international soft power campaign” and have “the greatest long-term potential impact.” The critical point of Hubbert’s analysis is that the CIs work to counter the West’s narrative that China’s rise is a threat to the global community. In her interpretation, CIs reveal China’s “true nature” to the world, which can be accomplished by sharing its culture, philosophies, and language with the global community. China’s true nature offers order and progress (albeit backed by a massive police apparatus, AI surveillance, and Internet censorship), presents a successful development model that has pulled millions out of poverty (a state-guided mix of the public and private sector), and is morally strong (as opposed to the decadent, corrupt, and dysfunctional democratic governments of the West). Moreover, China was also a victim of Western imperialism, something that resonates with audiences in Latin America and the Caribbean.

While the U.S. and many European countries also have cultural outreach, they do not spread the official doctrine of a particular party or inhibit academic exploration. Furthermore, there is far less emphasis on economic statecraft, which tends to slip into the CIs’ functions quietly.

Many CIs in the Caribbean and Latin America offer job fairs, business Mandarin instruction, and forums to discuss new regional projects carried out by Chinese companies. These activities cross from the cultural to the political line because they seek to create long-term support for Chinese business and political objectives. As Jake Gilstrap observed in a research paper for the U.S. National Defense University: “It is my analysis that China seeks to create a generation of future political and business leaders that will support its ascent and serve as diplomatic allies in the international order. By increasing Mandarin language abilities and cultural influence in Latin America, China hopes to establish long-lasting ties that will lead to individuals in the region wanting what China wants, becoming valuable allies.”

There is an echo of Gilstrap’s observation in the words of Li Fangjun, an English Professor at Xi’an International Studies University who works at a CI affiliated with the National University of La Plata, Argentina: “Confucius Institutes directly serve the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese enterprises need to cooperate with local enterprises, but first they need smooth communication. If locals have a better understanding of our country, cooperation will be smoother.”

China has arguably already accomplished some of these ends with the diplomatic shifts of Panama, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic from Taiwan to China. The CIs have also helped build up a positive image of China throughout much of the English-speaking Caribbean and South America.

CIs are part of a larger strategy that operates in tandem with scholarships for local students to study in China. Scholarships have included airfare to and from China, free accommodation, free tuition, a yearly living stipend, and instruction in international business, public policy, educational management, tourism and hotel management, environmental engineering, project management, social work, fishery science, international communications, and theoretical economics. Although CIs and educational offerings are not the same as building roads, harbors, and sports stadiums, they provide a long-term soft power instrument in the new, increasingly Cold War-like environment of Latin America and the Caribbean.

As U.S. policymakers look to breathe life back into a renewed approach toward Latin America and the Caribbean, they should be aware that China has gained supporters in the region, many of whom regard the Asian country as the global hegemon-in-the-making. Indeed, as one Argentine student stated in 2019: “The world is becoming more and more globalized, and China’s role will only increase. Those of us who study Chinese and understand China will have a leg up in the future.” The CIs are doing their work.

Scott B. MacDonald is the chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and founding director of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His latest book, The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean, is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.

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