This article analyses the higher education systems in the European Union (EU) and China, and the influence of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, yidai yilu) on the implementation, development and reforms of an international agenda. It also takes into consideration the development of EU–China cooperation in education and academia through research and scientific programmes launched in recent years, as well as the role of some key institutions such as the Confucius Institutes. To this end, the aim is to analyse China's "soft power" policy and its link with the novel concept of "academic diplomacy" introduced in this article to describe the engagement and academic international cooperation between the EU and China. Such reforms and promotion of collaboration with the EU have ultimately promoted China's influence and visibility in the global arena.