Buddhism in International Relations: The Sino-Indian Relationship

This series on Buddhism and international relations by Durgesh Kasbekar is a modified series from an essay “Buddhism in International Relations” by the same author. International relations and global politics are often absent from reflections about Buddhism in academia. This series aims to provide a small corrective and highlight how Buddhism affects and is affected by international relations in the contemporary world.

Part Three’s focus is on the defining relationship of contemporary Asia: the Sino-Indian bond, which is characterized by intense co-operation, competition, and strategic distrust. Buddhism has featured heavily in the cultural diplomacy between the two countries, with both sides claiming legitimacy of stewardship of the Buddhist tradition.  

Durgesh Kasbekar is an Executive Committee member of the Religion in International Relations Section, International Studies Association (ISA). The views expressed by the author are personal and do not reflect those of the ISA or Buddhistdoor Global

The Fourth Tier

The fourth tier relates to the spirit of co-operation and competition between the two non-Buddhist Asian giants- China and India. The Chinese Communist Party is an atheist entity and India’s Buddhist population is less than 1 % (Scott, 2016). Yet, both countries leverage their historical association with the Buddhist religion in foreign policy and diplomacy- India being a country where Buddhism was born and where some of the most important sites of Buddha’s sermons are located and China, being the country with the world’s largest Buddhist population. As Kishwar (2018) points out, the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has adopted the panchamrit principles to navigate its foreign policy to promote India’s image as a rising global power. The fifth principle of the five principles is sanskriti evam sabhyata (cultural and civilizational links) which symbolizes India’s desire to leverage its rich historical cultural links with other countries as part of its soft power strategy (Kishwar, 2018).  

The spirit of co-operation with China was visible during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit as India’s Prime Minister to China in 2015. Before he undertook any official engagements in Beijing, he visited the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda where the Chinese monk –pilgrim Xuanzang brought back sutras and statues from his pilgrimage to India (Buddhistdoor, 2015). The Prime Minister also visited the Daxingshan Temple in Xian, which hosted the influential Indian Buddhist monk Amoghvajra from 756 until he passed away in 774 (Buddhistdoor, 2015). At both sites, centuries ago, Buddhist scriptures were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. This represented one of human history’s most successful examples of cultural diffusion and assimilation (Buddhistdoor, 2015) and symbolized the beginning of the spirit of co-operation between the two countries. Modi’s effort represented an opportunity to enhance the civilizational continuity between China and India.

The efforts of Benoy Kumar Sarkar, Liang Chi Chao and Tan Yushan within Pan Asian circles touched upon the Buddhist centred spirit of c-operation in the modern era. Tan Yushan had founded the Sino-Indian Friendship Society in 1933. His teacher Taixu had led a high-profile Buddhist good-will mission to India from China in 1940 to enhance China-India civilizational unity but the scarcity of Buddhist monks and monuments in India hampered his efforts. In the contemporary period, Chinese and Indian government officials have often emphasized and acted upon Buddhist centred civilization continuity between the two countries. In 2005, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao’s India visit, both countries agreed upon a bilateral project concerning the White Horse Temple in Luoyang. India assisted with funding, architectural design, and construction material. Five years later, the edifice was completed incorporating the Sanchi Stupa and Sarnath Buddha replica provided by India. The Indian President Pratibha Patil was the official guest of honour at the inauguration ceremony. In 2007, Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing attended the opening of the Xuanzang Memorial Hall at Nalanda, India named after the famous Chinese monk-pilgrim who lived in India for 14 years. Both governments had worked together towards the construction of the hall. (Scott, 2016)

Civilizational continuity was emphasized through statements/speeches/communiqués by Sun Yuxi-China’s ambassador to India in 2006, Ye Xiaowen-Director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) in 2007, Pratibha Patil- President of India in 2010, S. Krishna – India’s External Affairs Minister in 2012 and Wang Xuefeng- the Chinese consul at Kolkata, India in 2014 (Scott, 2016). In September 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinpeng visited India, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took him to his home state of Gujarat, which the travelling monk Xuanzang had visited. Modi specifically emphasized the Xuanzang-Gujarat connection to Xi (Scott, 2016).

There are several aspects to the competition and rivalry in the realm of Buddhist diplomacy between the two countries. Mao Zedong had clearly articulated his perception of India and Tibet in 1950 when he had said that Xizang (Tibet) is China’s right-hand palm, separated from its five fingers. The regions of Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh represent these five fingers. As all these regions are either occupied by, or under the influence of India, it is China’s responsibility to liberate the five and connect them with (Xizang) Tibet (Stobdan, 2019). Overall, this approach defines the relationship between the two nations. Buddhism finds itself as one of the prongs of statecraft and the Dalai Lama perhaps being the most prominent actor.

China perceives the Dalai Lama as a secessionist out to carve out an independent Tibet and as a threat to Chinese unity. On the other hand, by giving refuge to the heads of all four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism viz. the Gelug (to which the Dalai Lama belongs), Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma (Ranade, 2017) and helping set up a Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala, India has bolstered its image in the global community (Kishwar, 2018).  China has repeatedly objected to the Dalai Lama’s presence at International Buddhist Summits held in India, often resulting in China’s withdrawals and non-participation in these summits. China has also objected to the Dalai Lama’s or any other India based Tibetan Buddhist leader’s visits to monasteries located in India’s provinces bordering China. To have greater control over Tibetan Buddhism, the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) regulations grant China the power of deciding and approving the next Dalai Lama who would succeed the current Dalai Lama. The India-based Tibetan government in exile fiercely disputes this right.

Rivalry also spills out in the sphere of establishing academic institutions. India’s decision to establish the Nalanda University in 2010 by passing the Nalanda University Act 2010 in both houses of the Indian parliament (Nalanda University, 2019) led to China setting up the Nanhai Buddhist College in its Hainan province. The College has seen enrolment and partnerships with Buddhist centers in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand (Kishwar, 2018). The third aspect in the competitive field relates to Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar where both countries indulge in Buddhist-centred competition. Further east, India invokes Buddhism as a civilizational link in its strategic partnerships with Vietnam, Mongolia, South Korea, and Japan to balance China (Scott, 2016). When Indian Prime Minister Modi visited Japan in August 2014, he visited two ancient Buddhist temples in the country and Buddhism found a reference in the joint statement after another visit to the country in November 2016 (Ranade, 2017).

Similarly, his May 2015 visit to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia involved several references to Mongolia and India’s shared Buddhist heritage. He visited the Gandantegchinlen monastery and while addressing the Mongolian parliament referred to the Buddha and Buddhism seven times in his speech (Ranade, 2017). Since 2015, the Delhi-based International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and the Tokyo Foundation, Japan have held a series of conferences on Buddhist – Hindu dialogue on conflict avoidance and environmental sustainability. New Delhi, Tokyo, Yangon, and Ulaanbaatar have hosted these conferences in the past (Nair, 2020). On the other hand, China relies more on economic enticements with its dealings with those countries (Scott, 2016).

The fourth aspect relating to competition relates to both countries leveraging their influence through different International Buddhist organizations. Since 2006, China has been hosting the World Buddhist Forums (WBF) (Yi, 2008) which brings together Buddhists from different schools of thought from across the world. With the same objective, the India-based International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) has been hosting the Global Buddhist Congregations (GBCs) since 2011 (Lam, 2011, n.d.). The WBF and the IBC also feed into the first tier of Buddhism in IR mentioned above as they bring different Buddhist traditions under one unifying umbrella. Over the years, the competition and rivalry aspect has slightly dampened the spirit of co-operation in this uneasy relationship between the two countries.

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