China-India quest for Buddhist diplomacy

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Dost Muhammad Barrech

BUDDHIST diplomacy for China and India under the current geopolitical landscape has gained considerable momentum. Both states are committed to promoting Buddhist diplomacy to project their soft powers as well as to gain an overwhelming influence in the regional politics. The recent decade has witnessed a growing competition between them over Buddhist diplomacy in Asia. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 04 May 2015, on the occasion of the Buddha’s traditional birthday, maintained that “by following Buddha’s teachings of love and compassion, Asia could become an inspiration and guiding spirit for the world.” Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping asserts that “Preservation of Tibetan Buddhist knowledge, culture and language is of immense value to the Chinese people”. Dalai Lama, an exiled Tibetan spiritual leader also confessed that “They (China) must give us genuine freedom for the preservation of our culture. In the long run this will be of immense help to Chinese Buddhists,” Arguably, the use of faith in international politics for legitimising political rule is an old phenomenon. History is a tangible testimony religion remained an instrumental tool followed by statecrafts for perpetuation of the power.
The pertinent question, however, remains: Why are China and India so obsessed with Buddhist diplomacy? The answer to the question needs to be examined in the context of existing Sino-India competition in the regional and global politics; both states are competing to exploit all options including Buddhist diplomacy. China is well-known for the world’s largest projects such as the Great Wall of China, Belt and Road Initiative BRI, making the world’s largest dams also tries to become the leader of Buddhism. Chinese President Xi Jinping is believed to have been using Buddhism as a useful tool to protect Chinese moral values, preventing frustration of the middle class in the economic downturn in the future. Beijing’s remarkable economic headway has placed the country with per capita income of (10,276 U.S. dollars) in the last two decades. Chinese economically content class is becoming preoccupied with spirituality in the shape of Buddhism. The new trend of yin guo (karmic) linked with Buddha Amitabha has gained considerable significance among millions of Chinese.
The yin guo is practised by Chinese students, businessmen and ordinary masses to get inner satisfaction. Chinese Master Jingzong maintains that “China’s intent to realise its economic and political destiny would pale compared to the urge amongst millions to accomplish their spiritual fortunes” he further argues that the future of China cannot be visualized without Buddhism. Presumably, China would morph economic weight into spiritual might buttressing Buddhist globalization, building spiritual affiliation with other nations, organizing the world Buddhist Forum. China is predicted to be using Tibetan cultural connectivity to accelerate its influence across the Indian Himalayan belt, Russia and Mongolia. New Delhi will also jump at the opportunity by capitalizing Buddhist diplomacy. Though Buddhism originated in India, it still has a mere one per cent Buddhist population. India in order to craft Buddhist diplomacy is committed to bolstering ties with Asian nations serving its large objectives such as Act East Policy and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Buddhism remains the main feature of Modi’s foreign policy during his visits to China, Sri Lanka and other regional countries he has constantly accentuated the shared Buddhist heritage and tried to reserve one day in foreign visits to visit Buddhist temples wherever possible.
Modi has termed Buddhism as a panacea for the development of the world and India. India possesses the world’s seven of the eight most major Buddhist sites in the world, receiving Buddhist tourists from South East Asian nations where Buddhism remains the primary religion. Indian former Ambassador P Stobdan in this regard once articulated that “Buddhism was India’s ancient geopolitical tool that could still be employed to meet the challenges of the new millennium”. India, at the current juncture tactfully uses Buddhism as a geopolitical tool granting asylum to the Dalai Lama Tibet’s spiritual leader. A renowned writer of the McGill Journal of Political Studies Isabelle Shi says that hosting of the Dalai Lama is “China’s greatest weakness in the arena of Buddhist soft power. It cannot cultivate a benign, peaceful Buddhist image greater than that of the 14th Dalai Lama.” The US President Donald Trump at the end of 2020 signed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act TPSA. The bona fide objective of TPSA is the US assures the people of Tibet for the cause of Tibet, reaffirming the support for the Central Tibetan Administration and the Dalai Lama. The President of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, views TPSA as “a momentous milestone for US policy on Tibet,” the controversial TPSA by and large emboldens India the strategic partner of the US is likely to follow in the footsteps of the Washington irritating Beijing, strengthening Tibet policy, promoting Buddhism diplomacy to win the hearts and minds of the people of Tibet.
—The writer is a Research Associate at India Study Centre (ISC) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI)