Indo-Sino geopolitical strategies in Sri Lanka through the lenses of Buddhism
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 09 May , 2022

When Mackinder coined the phrase “Heartland Theory” in 1904, the importance of Sri Lanka as a strategic location was not widely recognized by the European powers. However, today the gravity of Indian ocean as an indispensable factor to the global governance challenges “Heartland Theory” of Mackinder. Perhaps, Mackinder’s phase can be changed as “Who rules the Indian Ocean controls the world”.

Given the crucial importance of Sri Lanka as a geopolitical nexus, China seems to have developed its high interest in the island nation. In particular, the Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka took a tectonic  shift in the post war scenario under Mahinda Rajapaksa regime as Beijing extended its cooperation for many development projects in Sri Lanka. It should be noted that Sri Lanka became a partner in Belt and Road Initiative as a key partner in its maritime route. From a historical point of view, the connectivity between China and Sri Lanka is rooted in its deep maritime silk road legacy, which brought famous Chinese travellers like Fa Xian and Hu Tzan.

All these historical trajectories seemed to have forged China’s reawakened interest in the island nation leading to a greater power struggle in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka owes a significant cultural and topographic dependence to the Indian subcontinent, which carved the political history of Sri Lanka throughout its history. Thus, Chinese vison of strengthening its presence in Sri Lanka through the historical connectivity becomes inevitably a harder task. The grip that New Delhi maintains in the region towards its smaller neighbours such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh is mainly attributed to its deep socio-cultural influence pervaded among the people. India’s foreign policy doctrine initiated by foreign minister in 1997 Inder Kumar Gujral reflects rather lenient foreign policy upon the these neighbours as Gujral suggests that India should not ask reciprocity from the neighbours like Sri Lanka,Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal, but it should give and accommodate what it can in good faith.

Nonetheless, despite the ostensible pacific nature that India projected in its foreign policy doctrine in the 90’s , modern concern of New Delhi under Modi government has conspicuously taken a more firm foreign policy approach to Sri Lanka. Significant Tamil presence in Sri Lanka, which maintains its ties with Tamil Nadupolitics and India’s success in making benign effects in Sri Lanka’s local politics are phenomenal causes that one should not forget. Given this scenario China’s has two clear obstacles in executing its soft power diplomacy for its gain in Sri Lanka. The first salient challenge arises from China is its lacuna of a rooted presence of socio-cultural connectivity in Sri Lanka. Although, Chinese have maintained a ponderable influence in the island nation, its influence cannot exactly vanquish the India civilizational legacy in the island based on Theravada Buddhism. Secondly, the broader and hawkish network that New Delhi established in Sri Lanka in the post independent era has been a fervent cause for India’s success in Sri Lanka. For instance, RAW presence in Colombo plays a pivotal role in the local political stage, which astutely sabotage any act or a policy in Sri Lanka, which might hinder India’s interests.

In this backdrop of such a deep rooted affinity with India, China’s geopolitical aspirations in Sri Lanka seems to have taken a new bent through its civilizational lens. It may sound rather paradoxical to align China’s Buddhist resurgence with Chinese Communist Party’s anathema with religion. Furthermore, the past atrocities committed during the cultural revolution in China against the Buddhist monks is another grim episode which persists and  can question the sudden rejuvenation of China’s interest in global Buddhism. Alongside this historical burden that has been chasing China’s present endeavors, the success that Beijing has gained in Sri Lana on Buddhist diplomacy is rather impressive.

One of the notable manifestations of China’s practical approach to using Buddhist diplomacy in Sri Lanka is that its rapid success in making a rapport with the local Buddhist monks.  China is well aware of the fact that making any hostility toward local Theravada Buddhist monks is inimical for its public diplomacy in Sri Lanka. Therefore, Beijing has aptly adhered to forming an amicable alliance with leading Sri Lankan Buddhist monks and this strategy is grounded on retrospection of the island’s historic ties with Chinese civilization to buttress the overarching success of China’s Buddhist diplomacy in Sri Lanka.According to some sources, Beijing played a crucial role in harboring former president Sri Lankan Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election campaign during the 2015 presidential election.

Given the perennial value of Buddhism in Sri Lankan culture and India’s inedible legacy in cultivating Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the novel projection of Buddhism depicting Chinese culture seems to be an astute mechanism. Overall, the intensified mechanism of projecting Buddhist diplomacy in Sri Lanka buttresses China’s influencing position in the island regardless of the strong Indian impacts in Sri Lanka’s socio-cultural domain. While China will always cope with an array of setbacks in utilizing Buddhism as a soft power strategy in Sri Lanka to the overarching success of BRI, it has the advantage of newly emerged pro-Chinese Buddhist intelligentsia in the island nation. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Punsara Amarasinghe

is a visiting fellow at Sciences PO Paris and currently reading for PhD in international law at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa, Italy. Formerly he was attached to Center for Global Legal Studies at University of Wisconsin Madison.  

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