Premier Wen Jiabao's comments at the United Nations yesterday regarding China's ongoing dispute with Japan demonstrate the value good relations with other countries can have for the PRC. On this theme, the last decade has seen China trying to increase its presence in nations across the world with its Confucius Institute (CI) programme. The several hundred currently in existence act as centres for the spread of Chinese language and culture, though they have also drawn fierce criticism as a platform for the PRC to increase its 'soft' power (the CIs are, after all, run under the auspices of the Chinese government).
The first CI opened in South Korea in 2004, and they can now be found in over 90 countries including the USA, the UK, Sweden and Serbia. While there are many located within Europe, the Baltic region of Northern Europe has been devoid of CIs- that is until yesterday. As the Xinhua News Agency was proudly reporting this morning, Wednesday saw Li Changchun (a member of the CCP's elite politburo) open the Baltic's first Confucius Institute in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Linked with the University of Tallinn and China's own Guangxi University, the new CI will be focusing on disseminating knowledge of the Chinese language through Estonia, building on the University's own established Chinese studies courses. 3 month language courses will also be available to the general public.
What is interesting is that Li was not at pains to deny the value of CIs to Chinese interests, and almost confirmed as much in his comments at the opening ceremony. According to Xinhua, he highlighted the value of the programme to promoting good relations between states, and the economic/diplomatic benefits these could bring. Of course, Li presented his statements in a way that stressed the mutual advantages of healthy exchanges between China and Estonia. However, most observers will be able to confidently say that China is the real winner when it comes to the Confucius Institutes. As the world economy begins to become more dependent and responsive to China's development, the PRC will be able to use ties between itself and other countries to its definite advantage. The CIs will serve as perfect vehicles to sustain China's international reach on a non-diplomatic level- in a world where soft power and 'hearts and minds' diplomacy is as effective as the threat of armed conflict, the Confucius Institutes represent an excellent investment for the future. In this context, we should be expecting to see China open more in the future, with particular emphasis on areas (like the Baltic) where CIs are few and far between. If ever one needed an example of China's increasing role in the world, yesterday's events in Estonia would be it.
The next few days will see Li also visit Montenegro, Ireland and Iran, in the former two cases probably for the purposes of goodwill more than anything else. However, with China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi today calling for further international focus on solving the Iran nuclear issue, Li will undoubtedly use his visit to Tehran to sow some seeds of progress. The PRC is increasingly trying to style itself as an supranational arbiter (as is the case with the Korean Peninsula)- to this end, Li will want to make sure China is seen as right at the heart of future negotiations, rather than Beijing resolutely backing Iran in the face of American concerns.