Indian Prime Minister and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi was recently the chief guest for the celebrations of Vesak Day—the birth, enlightenment, and passing of Buddha—in the predominantly Buddhist island-nation of Sri Lanka. After the May meeting with Modi in Colombo, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took an unprecedented step of refusing to host a Chinese nuclear submarine, and then soon arrived in Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) with President Xi Jinping and 28 other leaders. The Indian premier, who purposefully skipped the Beijing Summit, was concerned about the evolving Indian Ocean maritime security posture, as Colombo harbor is being used for more than 70 percent of Indian transshipment and trade relations. 

In the meantime, China and Sri Lanka will, by the end of 2017, celebrate the completion of the $100 million USD plus, all-encompassing ‘Lotus Tower’ in the heart of Colombo. With a revolving restaurant at the top of the 350-meter high Lotus Tower, which was named in deference to the Buddha’s Lotus Sutra, the rising structure cleverly embodies a Buddhist emblem of peace and prosperity. The Buddhist landmark, which is 26 meters taller the Eiffel Tower, harkens back to the ancient power that once radiated from the Middle Kingdom until the arrival of European colonial rulers in Sri Lanka, India, and China.

The brightly glowing physical edifice—giving a new “visual impact” intended to be seen from India—manifests Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy slogan of a ‘Peaceful Rise,’ with the Lotus Tower set to be the tallest structure in South Asia and the nineteenth tallest building in the world. The iconic building on the Colombo skyline, with its highly-sophisticated information technology and communication capabilities, has already begun to unsettle neighboring India, as it was allegedly designed to monitor conversations in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. 

For defense analysts, this elaborate complex is an electronic surveillance facility funded by the Chinese Export-Import Bank. It is being constructed by the China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation (CEIEC) and the Chinese Aerospace Long–March International Trade (CALMIT), which are subsidiaries of the People’s Liberation Army of China. Emphasizing the three “integrations” strategy, the CEIEC is engaged in defense electronics system integration, overseas engineering integration, and business solutions integration, among others. The CALMIT is involved in the aerospace industry, specializing in the export and import of defense equipment technology and services as well as the export of anti–terrorism, anti–riot technologies and services, among other activities. Beijing, however, maintains that its purpose has always been the navigation and management of China’s maritime affairs to rebuild a commercial civilization that had existed prior to colonial rule.

Connectivity for Prosperity

Sri Lanka—known as the “Crown Pearl” of China’s multibillion dollar New Silk Road plan, which connects Hong Kong and the rest of the Pearl River delta in China’s Guangdong province through the Indian Ocean to the “Pearl Square” of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf—is being viewed as Beijing’s grand strategy to dominate the Indian Ocean region and beyond. Originally known as the String of Pearls military strategy, these undertakings have triggered legitimate fear of Beijing. China is essentially encircling India with its “concircling” (containing and circling) strategy of various infrastructure and development projects in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the “connectivity for prosperity” plan. During his historic visit to Sri Lanka in September 2014, President Xi described the island as a “splendid pearl” while the two countries signed over twenty bilateral agreements in Colombo.

Strategically located at the southern tip of India, the centuries-old maritime island has consciously tried to further develop its friendly relations with India while the Colombo government has now begun talking about concluding a Free Trade Agreement with China by December 2017. Of the 20 million people on the island, over 70 percent of the Buddhist majority has a kindred spiritual connection with China as opposed to a punctuated history of ethnic, religious, and ancient warfare with its northern neighbor, India.

Prime Minister Modi, during his visit, reminded the Sri Lankan people that India has had a more enduring “shared heritage of Buddhism” than that of the newly assertive China with its recent Buddhist diplomacy. The insightful Xi—whose youthful encounter with Buddhism in contrast to other Chinese leaders including Chairman Mao Zedong—appears to have engineered a remarkable facelift for the 87-million-strong Chinese Communist Party with his rejuvenation of China’s “spiritual life” through an embrace of Chinese religious heritage for governance. Similar to former non-ethnic Han Chinese emperors like in the Yuan and Qing dynasties, the pragmatist Xi was drawn to Buddhism during his early career and had a “seeming belief in supernatural forces” even saying that “if the people have faith, the nation has hope, and the country has strength.” In light of slowing economic growth and mounting social tensions, President Xi—China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao—has evidently returned to the spiritual revival of the unifying forces of Daoist, Confucius, and Buddhist traditions.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu, has become a 'Buddhist diplomat' in dealing with China and Sri Lanka. Photo accessed via Reuters.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu, has become a “Buddhist diplomat” in dealing with China and Sri Lanka.  Chinese President Xi Jinping looks on as the visiting premier receives a golden Buddha statue from an abbot of the Dacien Buddhist Temple in Xi’an, the ancient capital of China in May 2015. Photo Accessed via Reuters. 

Buddhism as a Vehicle

Even though Buddhism was “imported” into China from India and Sri Lanka by purpose-driven itinerant monks, merchants, and imperial emissaries of the Middle Kingdom, the amalgamation of these spiritual and ethical traditions has developed into a so-called Chan Buddhism. Thus, the unifying nature of these moral and religious forces has long been associated with political power and cultural authority. As Prime Minister Modi’s new foreign policy is anchored in “Buddhist diplomacy,” he also acknowledged the inherent power of China’s Buddhist diplomacy that is illustrated by its religious and ancient links to Sri Lanka. That shared heritage had indeed laid the foundation for the mutual affinity and friendship between the two countries. For the Sri Lankan Buddhists as well as the minority Indian Buddhists which make up less than one percent of the Indian population, Modi—a devout Hindu, whose philosophical bedrock is derived from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—became a frightening prospect for Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious and ethnic groups in India, especially given the recent rise of more deadly and violent Hindu nationalism.  

Buddhism had departed from its birthplace in India after the golden period of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka the Great (from 304 to 232 BCE). The visionary Buddhist emperor sent his son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta to Sri Lanka as emissaries to propagate the teachings of Buddha. Afterward, the island nation proudly became the defender of the faith and promoter of Buddha’s original teachings and a renowned ancient epicenter of Buddhist learning for both the Mahayana (“the greater vehicle”) and the Theravada (“school of the elders”) traditions in the capital city of Anuradhapura from 500 BC to 993 AD.

With the patronage of members of the ruling dynasties, monks, and merchants, the millennia-old harmonious metropolis became the ecclesiastical home to three massive monastic complexes of the Mahavihara, Abhayagiri, and Jetavana. Continuing the ancient practice of the ruling dynasty, the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka gives Buddhism “the foremost place” and the state has assumed the duty to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana (the Buddhist doctrine or order) with its cabinet-level government Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. Unlike the separation of church and state in the United States, the prevailing political powers in China, India, and Sri Lanka have for the most part used religion as a source of inspiration, unity, and authority for governance and economic prosperity.

Monks and Merchants

A deeply religious and commercial nation for millennia, Sri Lanka has always acted as a magnifying conduit to diffuse Buddha’s noble Dharmic teachings around the world and attracted Buddhist scholars like the famous Chinese Monk Fa-Hsien (399 to 414 CE) during the Eastern Jin dynasty. He later adopted the spiritual name Faxian: the “Splendor of Dharma” or the teachings of Buddha.

Another legendary Chinese monk-scholar Xuanzang (602 to 664 CE) in the Buddhist Golden Age of the Tang dynasty was inspired by Fa-Hsien’s travel but the Tang envoy was not able to visit Sri Lanka. During his 15-year study tour in India, Xuanzang, who is credited with spreading Buddhist teachings in China, learned about Sri Lanka. Describing the “Sorrowless Kingdom” of Sri Lanka in his Buddhist Records of the Western World, Xuanzang wrote, “By the side of the king’s palace is the vihara [temple] of the Buddha’s tooth, . . . brilliant with jewels and ornamented with rare gems. Above the Vihara is placed an upright pole on which is fixed a great Padma raja (ruby) jewel. This gem constantly sheds a brilliant light, which is visible night and day for a long distance, and from afar appears like a bright star.”

This elaborate narrative and other details of his Tang era records had a profound impact on Chinese literary history, giving birth to the celebrated fictional epic, Journey to the West, in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). More importantly, however, his writing—highlighting the “bright star” in the Buddhist kingdom—has a consequential influence on the Sino-Sri Lankan relationship. Like the bright star in his commentary, the Buddhist-inspired Colombo Tower is consciously being constructed to project the literary work of Xuanzang that would symbolically to replicate the ancient glory, but now the rising “lotus flower”, taking the place of a radiant ruby gem, represents the light of Buddhist peace and prosperity visible all the way from India. 

In his famed travelogue, Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms, Fa-Hsien wrote about his two-year stay in Sri Lanka and described the decorative ceremonies overseen by the local king to worship the Buddha’s sacred tooth. His writings of Buddhist relic veneration for peace and prosperity contributed to similar traditions and rituals by Chinese emperors. Thus, the contributions made by Fa-Hsien and Xuanzang established reciprocal and enriched traditions as the new footprints are being developed for future Sino-Sri Lanka connectivity.

These itinerant monks also developed mutually beneficial relationships with merchants and built a network of monastic communities and thriving cities along the ancient Silk Road. This kind of interactive codependency between the spiritual-seeking monks and the profit-driven merchants from local and distant lands created a model of commercial civilization and a Chinese world order.

During the reign of King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-86) of Sri Lanka, for example, the prosperous Kingdom of Polonnaruwa—with its Buddhist monuments, hospitals, irrigated rice fields, and a network of reservoirs and navigable canals—maintained extensive trading relations with many Southeast Asian and Middle East countries as well as India and China. A century later in the reign of King Parakramabahu III (1287-93), Sri Lanka imported “swords and musical instruments” from China and Chinese soldiers “served” in the king’s army to protect trading ships from Burmese piracy in the Bay of Bengal.

Buddha’s Tooth: Marco Polo and Zheng He

The Chinese imperial interest in Sri Lanka goes back to the Great Emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century who believed in Buddhist treasures—especially the Buddha’s tooth relic—as magnet for unifying the culturally, religiously, and linguistically diverse Chinese nation. The Mongolian founder of the Yuan dynasty sent the legendary representative Marco Polo twice in 1284 and 1293 to Sri Lanka with the intent of taking the sacred tooth relics of Buddha back to China. The eyewitness records of Fa-Hsien’s travelogue—written in the fifth-century—described the Buddhist treasures in Sri Lanka, and his Chinese translation of Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts was widely known since the beginning of the Yuan dynasty in addition to the writings of Xuanzang.

In the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Ming emperor’s Muslim envoy Admiral Zheng He (1371–1435) embarked on extensive treasure voyages to the Indian Ocean and first visited Sri Lanka in 1405. In traditional Confucian manner, the admiral demanded that the Sinhalese king pay tribute and obedience to the Yongle Emperor, the Son of Heaven. The Ming visitor also reportedly wanted to take back the sacred bowl, hair, and tooth relics of the Buddha—the island’s spiritual treasures for more than a millennium.

The Ming admiral’s second visit in 1410 led to a military conflict between the expeditionary forces of the Ming dynasty and the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom on the Buddhist island. The Ming-Kotte War ostensibly aimed to stop piracy and local hostilities that threatened the Chinese treasure fleets as well as to acquire the tooth relic. Naturally, the ruling King Alakeshvara—the guardian of Buddha’s relics—was unsure of the hidden intentions of the foreign visitor as Roman, Greek, Jewish, Persian, Arab merchants had landed on the island to obtain treasures in the past. When the king refused Admiral Zheng’s request to erect a trilingual tablet (from the Ming capital of Nanjing) and pay tribute to the Ming emperor—thinking it was a symbol of surrender to Chinese sovereignty—, the disappointed envoy returned to the island after visiting India.

With two thousand sailors, the admiral laid siege to Kotte and captured the Sinhalese King Alakeshvara, his queen, and other notables. Admiral Zheng took these prisoners to China to apologize to the Ming emperor for their misdeeds, who instead pardoned the king for his “ignorance” in 1411. When the captors returned with the emperor’s nominee to the island’s throne in 1414, the powerful new King Parakramabahu VI  of Kotte—instated in the absence of the captured king—quickly rejected the arriving Chinese emissary. This was historically a very rare incident to what were otherwise relatively peaceful seven voyages of the Ming admiral between 1405 and 1433 to over 30 countries in the Indian Ocean.

Apart from religious and political objectives in Sri Lanka, the Chinese expeditions in general were commercially motivated. The archeological stele, discovered in 1911 at the southern port city of Galle, dated to 1409, has a trilingual inscription—in Chinese, Persian, and Tamil—indicating that the purpose of Admiral Zheng’s visit was to announce the mandate of the Ming emperor to recognize his legitimacy among foreign rulers. According to the inscription on the stele, the Ming diplomat offered valuable gifts like gold, silver, and silk to a local Buddhist temple on Adam’s Peak (or Sri Pada, the “great footprint” of Buddha) mountain. The Tamil script praised the god Vishnu; the Persian text invoked Allah. The inscription had a clear unifying message to the world invoking “the blessings of the Hindu deities here for a peaceful world built on trade.” As in Chan Buddhism, it was the underlying transcendental idea of Tianxia in ancient China that “all under Heaven” are brothers and sisters.

As such, commercial and people-to-people cultural diplomacy remained one of the most enduring aspects of Sino-Sri Lanka relations since the Ming treasure fleets arrived in the island. In 1459, for instance, a royal mission from the Kingdom of Kotte ended in shipwreck, leaving the prince—an adopted son of King Parakramabahu VI—in the coastal city of Quanzhou in Fujian province. The Chinese authorities discovered Xushi Yin’e—one of the nineteenth-generation descendants of the fifteenth century Sri Lankan prince—popularly known as “the Ceylon princes in Quanzhou”—who became a historic testament to peaceful interactions between the two nations.

 A Sleeping Giant-Friend in Need

Due to colonialism, Sino-Sri Lanka relations were dormant for almost 500 years until Sri Lanka gained its independence from the Portuguese, the Dutch, and lastly from the British in 1948. The newly independent island established its first bilateral agreement on the rubber and rice trade with the newly founded People’s Republic of China in 1952. Formal diplomatic relations began to expand after 1957; the completion of the massive Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in 1973 was a landmark of friendship. The fifth Non-aligned Summit in 1976—chaired by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike—was held at BMIC, hosting over 80 heads of state.

With this brief post-colonial historical backdrop, Sri Lanka re-established close relations with China more recently as Beijing provided military, financial, and diplomatic support for Sri Lanka to end the more than quarter century old Eelam War in May 2009. With India (and the United States) declining to offer military assistance during the war, Sri Lanka has naturally been drawn into the Chinese model of commercial engagement rooted in historical links.

As a strategically located island—with a highly-educated and entrepreneurial population—Sri Lanka has regained its prominence in travel and commerce in the Indian Ocean. After the war, China began to modernize the island’s infrastructure with a multibillion-dollar Chinese investment in the newly built deep-sea Hambantota Port, the Mattala International Airport, the Colombo Port City, the Colombo-Galle high-speed motorway, among other development projects. These gigantic projects were, however, designed to serve Chinese commercial needs and access to export markets in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe than to benefit the ordinary islanders.

In the overall trade ledger of Sri Lanka, the Sino-Sri Lanka trade is one-sided with hardly any significant exports to China. For example, the top export market destinations of Sri Lanka in 2015 were the United States ($3 billion USD), the United Kingdom ($1 billion USD), India ($830 million USD), Germany ($584 million USD), and Italy ($420 million USD) while the top import origins were from India ($5 billion USD), China ($4 billion USD), Japan ($1 billion USD), France ($1 billion USD) and the United Arab Emirates ($986 million USD).

To boost the import revenues of Sri Lanka, there are a slowly increasing number of Chinese tourists who have become frequent visitors to enjoy the sandy beaches and the natural wonders of the island. But more importantly, they are calling upon the places of Buddhist worship—including the renowned Buddhist Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic of the “Dalada Maligawa” in Kandy and the legendary Pahiyangala or Fa-Hsien Rock Cave in Kalutara—and other ancient sites of cultural and historic interest.

The Debt Trap and Fear of Dominance

Amid all this, the Colombo government now owes China over $8 billion USD in development project loans. More recently, influential policymakers, nationalists, and Buddhist monks have opposed the Chinese-built port city of Hambantota (and the proposed industrial zone) for granting a  80 percent of stake of  a 99-year lease to a state-owned Chinese company as part of a debt-swap scheme. The Hambantota harbor, the port city of Colombo, and other colossal “elephant projects” in the “connectivity for prosperity” plan have hardly benefited the common people. Indeed, the alleged beneficiaries of these massive projects have been the suddenly enriched family members and the inner circle of officials of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. To benefit the average Sri Lankan, however, the multitude of monks, merchants, and other stakeholders must also be included, as they have been in the past spiritual and commercial interactions.

Even though the emerging Sino-Sri Lankan relationship could be heralded as momentous in their post-Eelam War, and cultural and economic collaboration is widely viewed as mutually beneficial for the two nations, Buddhist activism and nationalism in a parliamentary democracy could invoke fear and danger for the sustainability of its historic relationship with China. Subtly, there exists a growing national consciousness of the Ming-Kotte War and its consequence of reported intention of putting the island nation under Chinese sovereignty—as a tributary state of Beijing.

Subtly, there exists a growing national consciousness of the Ming-Kotte War and its consequence of reported intention of putting the island nation under Chinese sovereignty—as a tributary state of Beijing.

Nevertheless, President Xi at the Belt and Road Summit in May reminded that China “will not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. [China] will not export our system of society and development model, and even more will not impose our views on others.” This may be a justifiably accurate narrative of the Chinese officialdom. For many observers, however, the port visits of naval ships and nuclear submarines in Colombo have challenged Beijing’s public statements and its intentions.

With the Lotus Tower rising from the waterfront of the picturesque Beira Lake in the commercial district, the prospect of reviving the American glory of “trade-for-peace” idea through the BRI must include the aspirations of ordinary people—as well as the monks and merchants.