The religious and moral teaching of Buddhism has had quite an influential impact on countries ranging from Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Central Asia to even countries in the Nordic region as well. However, the most populous block where Buddhism dominates as their primary culture and religion is undoubtedly the region of Southeast Asia. Countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and others in the region constitute a major Buddhist populated block.

The Asian century, as deemed by many scholars and experts, is a pivotal period that shall define the upcoming years of global cooperative development. At the heart of these emerging times, is the Asian continent that is expected to dominate the arenas of the world through its economic, political and cultural superiority. Even more so, what astonishes many, is that the inevitable rise of the Asian continent is perhaps on its path to being achieved through a non-militaristic soft power approach, that finds its understanding in ancient philosophical preaching.

There perhaps seems to be no doubt that economic interconnectedness has invariably prioritized soft power approaches in modern-day diplomacies, or has at least in the Asian continent. Joseph Nye, a well-acclaimed scholar of international relations, defined soft power as ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.’ Thus, the rise of the Asian continent is expected to be charted through attraction and mutual cooperation based on similar values for the pole position at the table of highs. Yet, for the nations of the continent to realize their ultimate potential through these means, the countries must strive to engage upon common grounds for their mutual development as a whole.

Buddhism as an impetus for Regional Connectivity in Asia

One such aspect which is perhaps a point of mutual consideration amongst most of the Asian countries is perhaps the shared cultural values of Buddhism that finds resonance within most of the major parts of the continent. Asian countries as of today consist of around 97% of the Buddhist population in the world; with over 14 countries of them having more than 50% of their populations preaching Buddhism; while seven of those nations have 90% of their citizens practicing Buddhism as their primary religion. The religious and moral teaching of Buddhism hence has had quite an influential impact on countries ranging from Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Central Asia to even countries in the Nordic region as well. However, the most populous block where Buddhism dominates as their primary culture and religion is undoubtedly the region of Southeast Asia. Countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and others in the region constitute a major Buddhist populated block

This, therefore, makes Buddhist diplomacy a common starting point for mutual cooperation and regional connectivity amongst similar value-sharing countries of the continent. In this case, India, a nation where Buddhism historically originated, has done well in capitalizing upon the channels that could act as a gateway for further engagements. Since its independence, India has attempted to reach out to other Buddhist countries to engage in shared cultural and religious associations. During Prime Minister Nehru’s tenure in 1952, India organized an International Buddhist Conference in Sanchi which was duly attended by over 3,000 Buddhist delegates from around the world making it the largest gathering of preachers at the time. More recently, in 2016, the 15th International Buddhist Conclave was organized in Varanasi by the Indian Tourism Ministry with attendees from 39 countries attending from all over the world. The current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has also on many occasions made frequent visits to Buddhist shrines and temples while on tours to foreign countries. This has very well made the leadership’s effort evident in indicating their will to promote India’s Buddhist legacy.  Yet, in India’s advancing bid to engage with similar value-sharing countries, there still remains a lot of scope to improve engagement efforts. For instance, Bhutan, Mongolia, Nepal and Sri Lanka can be reached out to through greater platforms of cultural exchanges leading to the strengthening of intercultural interactions for mutual benefit. This subsequently provides for increased scope of dialogue between nations and opens up channels previously unexplored. It is therefore wise to realize that India’s concerted efforts in advancing Buddhist diplomacy as a method of outreach, is a process that seeks to advance its interests for regional cooperation in the Asian continent as a whole.  

India as a Catalyst for Buddhist Diplomacy

Accordingly, there are various reasons for which India is expected to take the pole position for advancing Buddhist diplomacy as their outlook towards the region. Firstly, in historical terms, Buddhism finds its inception in the Indian sub-continent. This brings credibility towards Indian efforts to promote harmony and cooperation between common value-sharing countries, enabling it to act as a catalyst for greater engagement within various foreign policy domains. Secondly, most of the religious sites in Buddhism, which range up to seven important locations, find their home in India; including the widely recognized sites of Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and the recently revived Nalanda University. These sites make for great tourist attractions from other regions for millions of preachers and brings forth further scope for interactions with the Buddhist communities. For instance, there are several monasteries that have historical linkages to Buddhism in India. This makes a visit to the Buddhist Circuit an important route for various pilgrims from around the southeast Asian region; thereby constituting tourism as one of the most critical elements for strengthening India’s relations with the region and beyond. Lastly, but of great significance, the presence of the Dalai Lama in India presents India to be sensitive towards the beliefs and affiliations of the community at large. It also brings with itself a form of legitimacy that is rarely available in other similar cases, for India is seen to be a nation that is peaceful and has imbibed the philosophical roots of Buddhism into its own decision-making processes.  

This notion is also reflected in the global world’s perspective upon India as a country which has assimilated into the values of peace and harmony, directly finding its reference to the Buddhist philosophy of peace and co-existence. Moreover, these core values of Buddhism are particularly influential on many if not all of the south Asian and southeast Asian countries and is displayed in their foreign policy approaches as well. 

The Chinese Challenge to India’s Soft Power approach

India’s push to attain a superior position on Buddhist diplomacy however comes with some far-reaching consequences as part of its geopolitical competition with the Chinese state. China in recent decades has taken up the prospects of faith diplomacy as part of its outreach to south Asia and southeast Asia; the CCP has begun emphasising upon its civilization’s cultural roots to Buddhism in an attempt to woo countries into its sphere of influence. The CCP has also been known to deploy the Buddhist culture as a method to tackle internal conflicts and wider domestic issues, while also explicitly spending heavily on Buddhist institutions, monuments and statues in largely populated Buddhist nations. This has not only increased its engagement with local preachers but has also bought it an image of one who appreciates the philosophical teachings of the religion. Investments and claims made by the Chinese state in such magnitude are therefore of consequential concern to India and its attempt of affirming its hold upon the approach; for it is quite evident that China has the finances to sprout its engagements across the Asian continent side-lining Indian efforts in the process.

Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party has been constantly attempting to name a successor to the 14th Dalai Lama in an effort to claim its legitimacy over the Buddhist way of life. The succession of the 14th Dalai Lama is perhaps an avenue that is stated to be a ground for contestation between a legitimate successor reincarnated through the values and preaching of the religion on one side and a successor who shall be appointed by the Chinese state on the other. These attempts in any case have been called out to be an encroachment on the values and processes of the religion by many prolific Buddhist figures including the Dalai Lama himself.

Yet, as much as an advancement China has made within its neighbourhood, there are several inconsistencies within the Chinese method of engagement that India should make the most out of, if at all it intends to outmanoeuvre its competition. Firstly, the CCP’s godless nature and its ideological understanding of the political world are self-contradictory to its approach and needs to be probed further to help unravel Chinese strategies. A prominent example of the same was once recounted by the Dalai Lama in his autobiography in which during his visit to China in 1954, the Chinese premier, Mao Zedong, whispered into his ears “religion is poison. It has two major defects: it undermines the race, and secondly, it retards the progress of the country. Tibet and Mongolia have been both poisoned by it.” This statement alone by the Chinese premier is enough evidence to unravel how the Chinese state’s non-religious approach has impacted their ideological understanding, specifically pertaining to the role of religion in statecraft. 

Secondly, the succession plans that the Chinese are in the process of enforcing upon the Buddhist community, are an opportunity rather than a hurdle in itself. The Chinese leadership for all its Buddhist engagements may very well never accept a successor not approved by the CCP; thus, this grants the others an opportunity to bring forth China’s true agenda in projecting itself as the leader of Buddhism. For it is not cultural and religious roots that are imbibed in their soft power approach but are rather based out of the political and financial gains the nation would attain through its Belt and Road initiative; thus, invariably influencing Chinese strategy of seeking to utilise Buddhism as a tool for outreach. 

However, such tactics can only be brought forward if there remains clarity within India’s internal positions as well, for not all obstacles are external. Domestic political circumstances to have a say in how India’s foreign policy objectives are charted through. Even if India’s Prime Minister has vocally underscored the importance of Buddhist philosophy in his speeches, Indian domestic politics to a certain extent may have prevented it to be as outcoming upon the approach as compared to China’s articulation in similar prospects. Indeed, circumstances and situations differ in both the neighbouring nations approaches, yet in order to position itself at the helm of this particular soft power tactic, India’s foreign policy needs to expand its scope in order to attain the specific objectives of outmanoeuvring China at its game. 

An Asian Century grounded in Buddhist Diplomacy 

Under these circumstances thus, it still remains important to state that soft power diplomacy, specifically advanced through Buddhist philosophical means, is an approach that is perhaps a necessary course of action destined to succeed for inter-regional cooperation; more specifically among the southeast Asian and south Asian countries. It shall not only prove to be a gateway for increased interactions between the parties involved but will also enhance the bilateral relations of countries that are plunged into deadlocks on a range of issues. Hence it is quite relevant that the path to a peaceful global development must be paved by the ideals of Buddhism and its diplomacy, ensuring a peaceful cooperative development for all. And India in that forum must attempt to capitalize further to advance such goals for its larger interests and that of the region as a whole. Thereby, Buddhist diplomacy if executed well, can reap larger dividends for the whole region going forward into the Asian century.  

Author

A postgraduate in Global Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi, Ratish’s area of interest includes understanding the value of Narratives, Rhetoric and Ideology in State and Non-State interactions, deconstructing political narratives in Global Affairs as well as focusing on India’s Foreign Policy interests in the Global South and South Asia. He was previously associated with The Pranab Mukherjee Foundation and has worked on projects such as Indo-Sino relations, History of the Constituent Assembly of India and the Evolution of Democratic Institutions in India. His forthcoming projects at ORCA include a co-edited Special Issue on India’s Soft Power Diplomacy in South Asia, Tracing India’s Path as the Voice of the Global South and Deconstructing Beijing’s ‘Global’ Narratives.

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