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China’s plans for stronger land (black) and sea (blue) trade routes also include funding for scientific cooperation.

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China’s belt and road infrastructure plan also includes science

China’s plan to make massive investments in land and sea links with global trading partners also includes a little noticed commitment to support science and engineering, including the creation of dozens of new laboratories.

The belt and road initiative—originally announced in fall 2013 and officially dubbed the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road—is primarily an economic development program. Chinese President Xi Jinping's pet project, it is heavy on infrastructure—calling for new roads, railways, bridges, and ports—to recreate the overland and maritime trade routes that once led to China. Nearly 70 nations have agreed to cooperate in the plan, which aims to foster industrial development not only in the developing nations of Asia and Africa, but also in China's western provinces, which have yet to share in the economic prosperity of the country's coastal regions.

China is also planning to use the initiative to flex its scientific and engineering muscles, officials made clear at a 2-day Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation that ended yesterday in Beijing. “Innovation is an important force powering development,” Xi said in a speech to the opening session of the forum. And so the initiative will include technical cooperation in fields including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and smart cities. He also mentioned the need to pursue economic growth that is in line with sustainable development goals, and that rests on environmentally friendly approaches.

A science and technology action plan calls for training 5000 foreign scientists, engineers, and managers over the next 5 years, as well as welcoming younger scientists to China on short-term research visits. (That pledge comes on top of a separate program that each year provides 10,000 scholarships to students from developing countries to study in China.) The initiative also calls for setting up 50 joint laboratories, though the research fields and other details are not yet specified. And Xi wants to create a big data service platform on environmental protection, and promises support for countries adapting to climate change.

The Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is on board with the effort. A year ago it formed a Digital Silk Road program that will bring together scientists from 40 countries to cooperate on space-based Earth observations that might help identify and manage natural resources, protect the environment, and prepare for and respond to disasters. And last fall, the academy organized an international symposium that pulled together 50 countries from along the trade routes to explore further opportunities for cooperation. CAS sees the belt and road effort as China “shouldering more international responsibility,” academy President Bai Chunli said in a statement prior to the summit.

So far, China has committed some $1 trillion to the belt and road initiative, which will unfold over many years.