Under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a curious tangle of economic investment and Buddhist diplomacy has been carried out in countries like Sri Lanka. This may seem odd at first glance, but it highlights several interrelated trends in China’s foreign policy pursuits and rise on the world stage. In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked hard to soften criticism of its policies and growing global presence by portraying itself as a benevolent power intent on improving the lives of its neighbors. To this end, the CCP’s strategic objectives are increasingly advanced through Soft power initiatives persuade others of China’s harmonious intentions. But what does Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy initiative, the BRI, really have to do with Buddhism in Sri Lanka?
Since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war from 1983 to 2009, China’s economic presence has been a mainstay of the country. After the establishment of the BRI in 2013, Chinese foreign direct investment and state-backed political lending increased enormouslynotably represented by port projects in Hambantota and Colombo, both associated with the maritime sphere of the BRI, known as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Yet China is not the only major power with interests in Sri Lanka or the wider regions of South and Southeast Asia.
Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean ensures its relevance to other regional and international powers, particularly those that make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad: Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The race is on to secure access to and use of Sri Lanka’s port locations, transhipment routes and naval base potential. The Quad considers it crucial to move the Chinese presence in the country and to contain CCP influence in the Indo-Pacific. So how does Buddhism fit in?
Despite the CCP’s harsh religious repression and control within China’s borders, the Chinese government is increasingly trying to spread a positive narrative of its religious policies among maintain or strengthen relationships with countries that identify with these religions. This strategy complements various foreign policy activities to convince other countries to support Chinese interests without resorting to coercion. Buddhist-majority countries like Sri Lanka have become the main targets of this approach.
Indeed, due to the role of Buddhism as the main religion in Sri Lanka, the government Buddhist Advisory Council and the remnant of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy retain impressive influence over the country’s domestic and foreign policy. However, the privileged position of Buddhism had adverse effects on ethnic and religious groups like Tamils and Muslims, and international human rights agencies and Western powers are increasingly calling on Sri Lanka to fix its flawed human rights framework before loans and investments are not granted. Consequently, Sri Lanka has become increasingly dependent on China, which maintains a pragmatic and “no strings attached” approach to loans under the BRI.
Besides its economic clout, China has tried to position itself as a trusted partner for its religious neighbors by using “strategic narratives” rooted in “typical” Chinese religions like Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, China’s stories are conveyed through its extensive Buddhist diplomacy, which is exercised through high-level visits, joint religious events, gifts and donations.
The narratives that China projects through these activities focus on commemorating the historical Buddhist ties between China and Sri Lanka, which are presented as shared Buddhist destinies, bonds and values. Terms such as “millennial Buddhist destiny” (千年佛缘) are commonly used to refer to their common Buddhist heritage and the longevity of their relationship. Moreover, official Chinese statements note the crucial role of Buddhist exchanges in the development of trade relations between China and Sri Lanka, saying that Buddhism is a central element of cooperation under the BRI.
In a nutshell, the stories from China attempt to establish a discourse regarding the pursuit of Buddhist cooperation between the two countries as a prerequisite for the establishment of a “harmonious Buddhist world”. The BRI is being promoted as central to enhancing Sri Lanka’s development, its “bright future” and ultimately world peace. Sri Lankan actors often replicate China’s narratives, and many statements largely mimic China’s speech word for word.
But what does the CCP’s emphasis on using Buddhist diplomacy tell us about China’s plans? In short, China’s rise in the international system has become dependent on perceptions of its rise, and the CCP is increasingly trying to portray the country’s pursuits through a “benevolent Buddhist” lens – at least in places where these discourses have local cultural resonances.
This is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it builds on decades of policies aimed at establishing an image of China as a harmonious regional power. Moreover, while the CCP’s simultaneous use of religious diplomacy and infrastructure investment under the BRI umbrella might seem like an odd development, it is part of the initiative’s original jurisdiction. The BRI was always intended to be promoted through the concept of creating a “community with a common future” to secure China’s peaceful environment to facilitate its continued rise.
In other words, the goals of China’s simultaneous use of Buddhist narratives and infrastructure investment are simple: to pave the way for current BRI implementation, future projects and investments, and appease potential criticism from influential Sri Lankan stakeholders. This has important implications for the progress of the BRI in religious countries, especially in South and Southeast Asia where the CCP tries to follow the same strategy.
While Chinese Buddhist diplomacy appears to have had some success in Sri Lanka, various stakeholders in Sri Lanka have also shown great agency in using Chinese Buddhist narratives to serve their own national and international goals. Sri Lanka is increasingly using Buddhism in its foreign policy to mitigate criticism over its human rights issues relating to the Tamil and Muslim populations. By replicating the stories of China, the Sri Lankan government can garner valuable support from the public, political elites and Buddhist clergy.
Of course, this is not an infallible strategy, and Chinese Buddhist diplomacy is increasingly criticized by Western analysts. Questions persist about how the CCP can present China as an atheistic state while exploiting religious and cultural resources to serve its strategic interests abroad, as well as repressing its own ethnic and religious minorities at home. Yet so far that has not deterred Sri Lanka from accepting China’s tales of their shared faith in a “harmonious and peaceful Buddhist world”.
Finally, although it is not certain that the new sri lankan government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena will continue to support Buddhist visions of China, neither is a stranger to working with the CCP, and both have already begun cultivate their relationships with the Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy. Therefore, the CCP may find that its dual strategy of “Buddhism and benefits” lends itself well to its strategic goals, although much continues to depend on the willingness and agency of BRI host countries to come to terms with its own narratives. China on its supposed “smooth rise”. ”
This article is based on the findings of a research paper Posted in The Pacific Review, an international relations journal covering the interactions of Asia-Pacific countries. The Pacific Review is particularly interested in how the region is defined and organised, and covers transnational political, security, military, economic and cultural exchanges in the search for a better understanding of the region.