Asian knowledge spaces and student mobility corridors: A closer look at Sino-Thai cooperation
In September of 2021, participants gathered in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou in south-western China, for China-ASEAN Education Cooperation Week. During the opening ceremony on the 24th of September, Education Minister Huai Jinpeng pronounced the Chinese central government would continue to increase international exchanges in education with countries along the Belt and Road. He underlined the importance of enhancing cooperation between China and ASEAN countries to facilitate the integration of education and industry, and in the process contribute towards the visionary unfolding of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which promises common prosperity for all its participants (Ministry of Education, 2021).
Such rhetoric followed on the heels of President Xi Jinping’s announcement in 2015 that cultural exchange and cooperation in education and training were to be critical elements of the BRI and the subsequent implementation of the Education Action Plan in 2016. As outlined in this blueprint, the fundamental mission of education is to “serve as a bridge to closer people-to-people ties, whereas the cultivation of talent can buttress the efforts of these countries toward policy coordination, connectivity of infrastructure, unimpeded trade, and financial integration along the routes” (EAPBRI, 2016). The two key lines of strategies are to increase student talent and mobility and to expand China’s vocational education and training abroad.
Indeed, while China-ASEAN relationships are grounded in a long history of China’s economic involvement in the Southeast Asian region, recent interest in closer geopolitical and geoeconomic ties are driven by a pivot towards ASEAN as the next emerging regional economy. With a few exceptions (e.g. Singapore, Malaysia), ASEAN is home to large numbers of young people with growing aspirations for all levels of tertiary education, from vocational training to university education (Kirby & Wende, 2019). With demand exceeding the capacities of national governments to deliver adequate and quality education, China has seized the opportunity to articulate its diplomatic and strategic interests in ASEAN with educational capacity-building for the region’s emerging economies (Welch, 2011). At the same time, BRI infrastructural projects across Southeast Asia have created large inflows of capital and labour, thereby shoring up a demand for educational and training programmes that would serve to augment the local skills and talent pool required for maintaining the long-term viability of the BRI.
In the rest of this short essay, we explore the geographical connection between China and Thailand emerging from recent education and student mobility linkages leveraging on the broader China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor of the BRI and, more specifically, the pan-Asia Railway Network which grew out of the BRI vision.
Sino-Thai knowledge spaces and student mobility corridors
The BRI which began as an idea for “a new form of openness of Chinese globalisation in trade, finance and cultural exchange” (Peters, 2019, p. 3)  hitherto been supported through large-scale infrastructure development plans in the areas of transportation networks, energy and mining facilities, and communication technologies (Kao, 2021; State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 2015)). Scholarly focus on connectivity within the BRI has largely focused on ‘hardware’ issues concerning physical infrastructure, but researchers are increasingly noticing the project’s ‘software’ elements such as ideas, institutions, and diplomatic behaviour (Callahan, 2016; Zhang, 2021). From this standpoint, the BRI has facilitated new flows of knowledge and movements of people, as well as calling for a greater role of education in strengthening people-to-people bonds and building mutual understanding across cultures (Rezaei and Mouritzen, 2021).
Among other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand shares a profound relationship with China, shaped by historical cross-border flows and connectivities, which informed the formal establishment of Sino-Thai diplomatic relations in the 1970s. Even before the BRI, Thailand was a key destination for China to extend its cultural presence in the region through Confucius Institutes (CIs). Purportedly acting as non-profit institutions aimed at sharing and promoting Chinese language and culture on a global scale, CIs are often regarded by non-Chinese researchers as elements in China’s soft power initiative (Zhou, 2021a; Zhou, 2021b). By 2018, Thailand was host to 37 CIs and this, subsequently, allowed it to become the nodal point for Chinese cultural knowledge and dissemination articulated in the form of the Confucius Institute of Maritime Silk Road (Zhou, 2021b). These prior state-level relationships set the condition for Thailand to “become [one of the] legitimate participants in the pathways of mutual prosperity promised by Belt and Road” (Winter, 2020: 909), as well as in the making of wider China-Southeast Asian knowledge spaces and student mobilities.
In addition to several high-profile BRI cooperative projects, such as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Special Fund (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2019)  and the Lu Ban High-Speed Railway Institute (Li, 2019; Huaxia, 2021), China and Thailand have also maintained their transnational compact in the area of education through annual events like the Forum on China-Thailand Higher Education Cooperation and the Alliance of China-Thailand Universities (ACTU) Assembly. The ACTU which was initiated for the development of BRI strategies, in particular, drew more than 360 representatives from over 140 universities in China and Thailand via online and in-person participation in the 2021 iteration of the assembly (Jiangsu University, 2021). Alongside these performative linkages and policies, new opportunities also opened up for international student mobility flows between the two countries. Since the introduction of the BRI, Thailand has become the second largest international student source country while Chinese youths constitute the second biggest inflow of international students in Thailand (Zhang, 2018). More concretely, in 2018 there were about 32,000 Chinese students in Thailand and 28,000 Thai students in China, pursuing international education (Huaxia, 2019).
Although China has long played a significant role in the globalisation of higher education through sending international students to, and importing educational models from, western countries, this approach is being reconfigured through the BRI. China is now gaining prominence as a hub for hosting international students, notably from Asia, through a variety of talent-wooing and developmental aid scholarships, as well as exporting higher and vocational education models to other countries. So while the BRI allows China to continue to strengthen the position of its key national universities, it also seeks to internationalise and reinvent vocational education and training in the region. We turn next to consider the Luban workshop as a site that anchors such transnational linkages and flows.
Lu Ban workshop and high-speed railway training
As a part of the BRI’s Education Action Plan to expand Chinese vocational education and training presence abroad, the Luban Workshop (initiated around 2010 under the Tianjin Municipality) was adapted to promote collaborative technical training between China and the rest of the world in the service of BRI aspirations (d’Hooghe, 2021). Thailand, on the other hand, responded to the BRI and the development of the new China-Thailand high-speed railway by enhancing cooperation between vocational colleges from Thailand and China to train and prepare students for the operation of the China-Thailand railway. Through the China-Thailand railway talent development cooperation initiative, vocational institutions in Thailand import technologies and curriculum development schemes from China to foster talent in the high-speed rail industry.
The first Luban Workshop outside of China was set up in March 2016 by the Tianjin Bohai Vocational Technical College in the Ayuttaya Technical College in Thailand. By 2018, more than 2000 students had received vocational training in the Luban Workshop. Further to providing technical and vocational training to students to serve the BRI in the future, the collaboration between the vocational colleges in Tianjin and Ayuttaya sets up student and academic mobility corridors between China and Thailand, as well as mutual recognition of the academic qualifications, which would enable students who are trained in Thailand to find work opportunities in China and vice versa (China Education Daily, 2018). Building on this pilot Luban initiative, the Banphai Industrial and Community Education College in Thailand entered into collaboration with the Wuhan Railway Vocational College of Technology in China to set up the Lu Ban High-Speed Railway Institute to train students to become prospective operators and engineers of the high-speed railway. Such emerging educational collaborations are further supported by the training of local teachers as a way to disseminate knowledge about the Chinese high-speed railway technology as well as Chinese language training through the CIs (Li, 2019; Huaxia, 2021). Indeed, China’s significant investments and business presence in the region have repositioned Chinese linguistic skill as a prized tool for aspiring workers and students (Rinith, 2019; Hoon & Kuntjara, 2019).
The portrayal of these educational linkages and student mobilities in Chinese media often bolsters the image of the BRI as an unfaltering ambition, specifically – and perhaps unsurprisingly – by spotlighting their successes and achievements. Particularly striking is the way in which media narratives mobilise the figure of an appreciative and aspirational Thai youth to showcase how young people from other countries benefit from the Chinese-led initiative and, in the process, construct such educational cooperation as talent development programmes. Similarly, the aid language also features in such media narratives to construct Chinese vocational education as a source of technological knowledge to enable development in Thailand, such as in the headline of a news report: “how vocational schools boost skills for Belt and Road partners” (Huaxia, 2019). In another report from the Xinhua news agency about Sino-Thai cooperation, a Thai student was quoted as saying: “I’m waiting for the China-Thailand railway, hoping it can be completed as soon as possible so that I can contribute to its development” (Huaxia, 2021).
BRI’s role in remaking knowledge spaces and student mobilities
The case of the Luban high-speed railway vocational education and training program spanning across China and Thailand shows how the BRI is reconfiguring transnational education and student mobility flows in Asia (see also Cheng and Koh, 2022). In particular, Chinese-led transnational education in Southeast Asia involves the formation of tertiary education linkages that are forming a secondary circuit for the exchange and transfer of technical knowledge and skills (Ge and Ho, 2022). The BRI is a project that is represented as a form of Chinese globalisation in trade, finance, and cultural exchanges that emphasise openness (Peters, 2019). Further to being a massive (hard) infrastructure development project, a series of goals for the BRI concerning culture and education (including vocational training in the examples we have mentioned above) has also been developed as culture and education were viewed by the government as necessary for the development of soft infrastructure in tandem with hard infrastructure (Peters, 2020). In this respect, as a participant in Chinese global diplomacy through transnational education, people-to-people connections and academic exchange, the students in the vocational training programmes are also cultural ambassadors in the exchange and transfer of cultural knowledge and the development of soft infrastructure in Asia. At the same time, these linkages are also circulating through new youth mobilities involving young people who are the ‘unlikely’ participants of the predominantly elite form of international education and student mobility (Collins and Ho, 2018).
BRI developments are shaping the educational and migration aspirations of internationally and regionally mobile students alongside the multiple institutions that they interact with, in a way that is beginning to assert Asia as an alternative locus of knowledge and power to the prevailing western hegemony. But in order to gain deep understandings of the variegated manner in which the BRI (dis)articulates with locally shaped processes, practices, and mobilities, there is a need to pay heed to “shift the narrative away from (BRI’s) invented geopolitics to a better understanding of Chinese development impacts by examining the places where specific projects are unfolding on the ground.” (Oakes, 2021: 284). We contend that given how the BRI is rewriting the spatial logics of transnational and regional education alongside wider configurations of culture, political economy, and infrastructures, Asian knowledge spaces and student mobilities are ripe for critical research.
 There are existing debates around China’s lending behaviour and the risk of debt trap. Zhang (2021), for example, argues that BRI is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the BRI represents new opportunities for China’s foreign aid; on the other hand, the BRI also poses challenges in the organisation and delivery of China’s aid.
 The special fund of Lancang-Mekong cooperation will be used by the Ministry of Education of Thailand to organise vocational technique and education training concerning the China-Thailand-Laos railway (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2019).
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