Much debate has followed since Joseph Nye defined soft power in the 1990s as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.” Realists usually consider soft power a consequence of the hard one – the kind that comes from missiles and economic strength – while others see it as a smarter, complementary way to ensure that national goals are achieved. In a post on Foreign Policy, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt said that as a good realist, he should take soft power rather like an “epiphenomenon,” but admitted that a 2006 study by Carol Atkinson of Vanderbilt University seemed to prove that soft power has a significant influence over the spread of liberal values.

Aside from opinions on the relevance of this concept, a recent piece of news – which has very much stayed under the radar – could be telling of how China is becoming more influential in the world. In a “soft” way, of course.

Chinese students taking part in the annual college entrance exams walk by a giant bust of Chinese philosopher Confucius. Pic: AP.

On May 15, Zhejiang University and Imperial College London signed a memorandum of understanding for enhancing their academic collaboration. The two universities are now working on the possibility of co-locating Research and Development facilities in a new campus in White City, west London, where a new £150 million Research and Translation Hub should be completed in 2015. Last November, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) provided £35 million for the project.

According to Imperial College, the 42,000 square meter hub will provide facilities for 1,000 scientists and engineers and will be able to accommodate 50 or more spin out companies from inception through to maturity. On its website, Imperial noted that in the last 10 years the university has produced more spin out businesses than any other in the UK but has never been been able to accommodate more than 10-15 at any single time, a problem that could be solved with new infrastructure.

Speaking with Asian Correspondent, a communication officer at Imperial College said the launch of the collaboration received a “very strong” response from potential global partners in business, industry and academia. The full nature of the partnership has yet to be established, but Imperial told us that both partners could have “the potential to benefit from further collaboration in the fields of science, engineering, medicine and business.” Council Chairman of Zhejiang University Jin Deshui praised the deal, too, saying that the partnership will help in developing “a new model with mutual-benefit and sustainable-development to carry out an equal and two-way in-depth strategic cooperation.”

Rosy perspectives for the future of global education? Quite possible. But there is a soft power element in educational cooperation that is not lost on policy makers and analysts. A leaked 2008 cable from the US embassy in Beijing, for example, already noted that, “China actively pursues educational exchanges, cultural performances, youth exchanges and other instruments of ‘soft power.’” Professor Nye himself often argued that education is a chief way to prop up influence. “Academic and scientific exchanges played a significant role in enhancing American soft power during the Cold War,” he noted in a paper.

Political implications are highlighted by the fact that the Imperial-Zhejiang cooperation is not an isolated case, as Chinese universities are becoming increasingly entangled in global education. Beijing’s Tsinghua University, for one, boasts 19 joint master programs with various institutions across the globe and Zhejiang University itself carries on research projects with 16 universities in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. Besides, more and more foreign students are set to do at least some studies in China. According to the Institute of International Education, in 2011 some 26,000 Americans studied in the People’s Republic for academic credit.

In an interview published by the Times Higher Education, University of Hong Kong’s Professor Rui Yang argued that China is actively trying to attract more and more students and making a conscious effort to prop up its educational outreach – even though he contended that the soft power projection associated with these initiatives is not enough, at least from the government’s point of view.

Will the cooperation between Imperial College and Zhejiang University reinforce such a projection? Or will it prove to be a gain for the UK, as the campus is in London and people joining the program will arguably be more exposed to British rather than Chinese culture? After all, commentators often argue that the soft power is more beneficial to those who take students and academics rather than those who send them abroad.

There is no clear answer to these questions and Imperial College avoided commenting on the topic, but the attention received by the deal beyond China’s academic world might be a clue of the importance officials attach to it. Governor of Zhejiang Li Qiang, vice governor Liang Liming and even vice Minister of Education Hao Ping all took part to the signing ceremony. Director General of the Department for International Cooperation of the Ministry of Education, Zhang Xiuqin, reportedly dubbed the move a “valuable step.”

It is of course a matter of national standing, and officials close to academic institutions are well entitled to cheer international results (Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has done the same). But the questions remains: is it also a matter of power?