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Belt and Road Buddhism in Sri Lanka?

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Under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a curious entanglement of economic investments and Buddhist diplomacy has been carried out in countries like Sri Lanka. This may at first appear an odd pairing, but it illuminates several interrelated trends in China’s foreign policy pursuits and its rise on the world stage. In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked hard to mitigate criticism of its policies and its increasing global presence by portraying itself as a benevolent power intent on improving the lives of its neighbors. To this end, the CCP’s strategic goals are increasingly advanced via “soft power” initiatives to 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 1983-2009 civil war, China’s economic presence has been a mainstay in the country. After the BRI’s inception in 2013, Chinese foreign direct investment and state-backed policy loans increased tremendously, particularly represented by the port projects in Hambantota and Colombo, both of which are 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 South and Southeast Asian regions.

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 placements, trans-shipment routes, and potential for naval bases. The Quad considers it crucial to displace China’s presence in the country and to contain the CCP’s 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 working to disseminate a positive narrative of its religious policies to preserve or enhance its relations with countries that identify with those religions. This strategy supplements different foreign policy pursuits to convince other countries to support Chinese interests without the use of coercion. Buddhist-majority countries like Sri Lanka have become prime targets of this approach.

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Indeed, due to the role of Buddhism as the primary religion in Sri Lanka, the government’s Buddhist Advisory Council and the remainder of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy retain impressive clout in the country’s domestic and foreign politics. Yet the privileged position of Buddhism has had detrimental effects on ethnic and religious groups such as the Tamils and Muslims, and international human rights agencies and Western powers increasingly task Sri Lanka with addressing its faulty human rights framework before loans and investments are granted. Therefore, Sri Lanka has become increasingly dependent on China, which retains a pragmatic, “no-strings-attached” approach to lending under the BRI framework.

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Aside from economic clout, China has attempted to position itself as a trusted partner to its religious neighbors by utilizing “strategic narratives” rooted in “typical” Chinese religions like Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, China’s narratives are forwarded by its extensive Buddhist diplomacy, which is carried out through high-level visits, joint religious events, and gifts and donations.

The narratives that China projects through these activities center on commemorating the historical Buddhist bonds between China and Sri Lanka, that are framed as shared Buddhist fate, ties, and values. Terms such as “millennium Buddhist fate” (千年佛缘) are commonly used to refer to their shared Buddhist heritage and the longevity of their relations. Moreover, Chinese official statements note the crucial role of Buddhist exchanges in furthering trade relations between China and Sri Lanka, arguing that Buddhism is a central part of cooperation under the BRI framework.

In a nutshell, China’s narratives attempt to establish a discourse concerning the continuation of Buddhist cooperation between the two countries as a prerequisite for establishing a “harmonious Buddhist world.” The BRI is promoted as a central part of strengthening Sri Lanka’s development, “bright future,” and in time, world peace. Sri Lankan actors often reproduce China’s narratives, and many statements largely mimic China’s discourse word for word.

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But what does the CCP’s emphasis on utilizing Buddhist diplomacy tell us about China’s plans? In short, China’s rise in the international system has become dependent on perceptions of its ascent, and the CCP is increasingly attempting 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 seeking to establish an image of China as a harmonious regional power. Further, while the CCP’s concurrent use of religious diplomacy and infrastructure investments under the BRI’s umbrella may seem like a strange development, this is part of the initiative’s original purview. The BRI has always been intended to be promoted through the concept of creating a “community of common destiny” set to secure China’s peaceful environment in order to facilitate its continued rise.

In other words, the goals of China’s concurrent use of Buddhist narratives and infrastructure investments are simple: to pave the way for the BRI’s current implementation, future projects, and investments, as well as to assuage potential criticism from influential Sri Lankan stakeholders. This holds important implications for the BRI’s progress in religious countries, particularly in South and Southeast Asia where the CCP is attempting to follow the same strategy.

While China’s Buddhist diplomacy seems to have met with some success in Sri Lanka, different stakeholders in Sri Lanka have also shown significant agency in utilizing China’s Buddhist narratives to serve their own national and international goals. Sri Lanka is increasingly utilizing Buddhism in its foreign policy to mitigate criticism of its human rights issues related to the Tamil and Muslim populations. Through reproducing China’s narratives, the Sri Lankan government can secure valuable support from the public, political elites, and the Buddhist clergy.

Naturally, this is not a foolproof strategy, and China’s Buddhist diplomacy is increasingly being criticized by Western analysts. Questions persist as to how the CCP can portray China as an atheist state while harnessing 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, this has not dissuaded Sri Lanka from accepting China’s narratives of their shared faith in a “harmonious and peaceful Buddhist world.”

Finally, while it is uncertain whether the new Sri Lankan government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena will continue to support China’s Buddhist visions, neither is a stranger to working with the CCP, and both have already started cultivating their relations 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 pursuits, though much continues to depend on the willingness and agency of BRI host countries in accepting China’s own narratives about its supposed “harmonious rise.”

This article is based on the findings of a research paper published in The Pacific Review, an international relations journal covering the interactions of the countries of the Asia-Pacific. The Pacific Review has a particular interest in how the region is defined and organized, and covers transnational political, security, military, economic, and cultural exchanges in seeking greater understanding of the region.

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