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India and China’s Buddhist Diplomacy: A Soft Power Strategy towards Sri Lanka; By Shivani Sunder

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Article 29/2021

As said by Hedley Bull (1997), traditional diplomacy is “the conduct of relations between the sovereign states with standing in world politics by official agents and by peaceful means” (Pigman 2014).  However, in recent times the scope of diplomacy has enlarged to include new tools such as religious diplomacy. This concept has gained importance in the study of international relations and has contributed to several debates. In the case of Sri Lanka, it is a strategic location in South Asia that provides global trade routes for regional giants India and China. Notably, Buddhism is an enhancing tool for both rivals to strengthen their cultural ties with Sri Lanka.

The popularity of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism among the Sri Lankan politicians has encouraged regional rivals, India and China to incorporate Buddhist diplomacy in their Sri Lanka relations. Theravada Buddhism that originated in India has spread to most countries in South Asia and South-East Asia. On the other hand, China is a predominantly Buddhist nation. Irrespective of India having a deep Buddhist heritage, China has increased its presence in Sri Lanka far more than other countries in Asia through religious diplomacy. It is said that China has been trying to club its military diplomacy with Buddhism’s psychological bearing, often known as ‘Buddha’s tooth diplomacy’ to influence countries like Sri Lanka (Ramachandran 2019).[i] Therefore, it becomes essential for India to revamp its foreign policy towards Sri Lanka by re-energizing its religious traditions and creating a conversation between multiple Buddhist faith streams.

Sinhalese-Buddhist Nationalism

In the 3rd century BCE, the Sri Lankan King Devanampiya Tissa requested emperor Ashoka to send his children Mahinda and Sanghamitta to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Over the years, Sinhalese considered a lack of unity among them as a significant reason for the colonial domination in the island. Similarly, the humanitarian crimes carried out during the Sri Lankan civil war led to international criticism towards the Sri Lankan government and thereby Sri Lankan Tamil (who are Hindu majority) acquired immense sympathy. Thus, it became necessary for Sri Lanka’s government to integrate Buddhist references into Sri Lankan policy to safeguard their identity.[i] Significantly, the Buddhist monks took the upper hand to influence the politics of the island.

As said by Tambiah “If the monks were the moral guides at the base of the society, the monks were the political and moral advisors of the monarch and the ruling chiefs at the top” (Tambiah 1992).[i]

Until the 20th century, the role of Buddhist monks in Sri Lankan politics was passive. Nevertheless, over the years, Buddhist monks’ influence increased, and they commenced their political journey by being part of political parties or forming one of their own. Thereby monks played a significant role by influencing the Sinhalese leaders and implementing policies that favoured Buddhism. This could be seen vividly during the civil war, where this conflict had a profound religious dimension, as Buddhist monks opposed the power-sharing between the two ethnic groups, it was highly discriminatory for the Sri Lankan emigrants. As a result, several anti-Tamil laws were passed such as the 1956 Sinhala Only Act, which failed to give official recognition to the Tamil Language, and this considerably affected the feeling of people in the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. Therefore, there was an indirect influence of Buddhist nationalism in determining the Indo-Sri Lanka relations as the Sinhalese Buddhist wanted to prevent any external influence of ethnic culture into their society.

The Sri Lanka constitution gives the foremost place to Buddhism while recognising the rights of all minority religions. With the rise of extremist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya, it is questionable if Buddhist nationalism has deprived those rights bestowed on the minorities. Though Buddhism’s main principle is non-violence, certain monks in Sri Lanka were accused of stirring up violence and possessing conspiracy against the politicians who did not accept their proposals. They even took extreme steps to uphold their ideology by contradicting their own norms. For example, the fourth Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated by Talduwe Somarama Thero, a Buddhist monk. Recent incidents such as the 2019 anti-Muslim riots indicate that Buddhism has lost its principle of peace and tolerance in Sri Lanka. Moreover, it has become an essential factor in determining Sri Lanka relations due to Buddhism’s growing importance in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

A religious race between India and China

“Rajapaksa had reiterated through his election manifesto titled ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ that he would follow a non-aligned foreign policy. Yet Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka was clearly titled more towards China. A multitude of factors, including hostile policies adopted by the West, pressures exerted by the United Nations Human Rights Council, India’s lack of participation in Sri Lanka’s infrastructural developments projects, and the machinations of the Tamil diaspora pushed Colombo towards Beijing” (Miller 2015).[i]

In short, Mahinda Rajapaksa in his administration (2005-2015) had developed very close ties with China. The Chinese investments and financial aid helped Sri Lanka to recover its economy after the hostile, protracted war. Significantly, both countries give the foremost place to Buddhism, and thus Beijing used it as a foreign policy strategy to strengthen Sino-Sri Lanka relations with its religious neighbours. On the other hand, India embraces Buddhism to balance the Chinese soft power advantage. India’s soft power bridge of Buddhism was invoked during the administration of Narendra Modi.

The Lotus tower project is one of the significant religious projects undertaken by the Chinese in Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo. It is 350 meters high that emblematize the lotus sutra, one of Buddhism’s sacred scriptures (WION 2020).[i] The Chinese have funded $100 million for constructing the tower (Mendis 2013).[ii] This project reflects one of the Chinese core foreign policy interests of peaceful rising. Besides that, Chinese delegates visit Buddhist clergies and leaders on the island, such as the Chinese ambassador met monks of the Asgiriya Chapter in 2015. Notably, in October 2015 Sri Lankan Buddhist delegation participated in the 4th World Buddhist Forum which was organised by the Buddhist Association of China and China Religious Cultural Communication Association in Wuxi, China (Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka 2015).[iii]

The Chinese further developing ties with Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka indicates that China is strategically encircling India to reduce its sphere of influence in South Asia. Thereby, India has revamped its foreign policy with its neighbours and given priority towards cooperation and an amicable relationship with them. In Sri Lanka, particularly in Narendra Modi’s administration, India incorporated Buddhism as one of the soft power tools. Both countries have hosted diplomats to Buddhist religious sites. Such as the 2020 Mahindra Rajapaksa’s visited various religious places in India, including Bodh Gaya (BusinessLine 2020).[iv] Moreover, in September 2020, India announced grant assistance of $15 million to Sri Lanka to strengthen Buddhist ties between both countries (Chaudhury 2020). [v]

Though both countries have embraced Buddhism in their bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka tends to be tilted towards Beijing due to extensive economic assistance. Notably, island politics ensures that Sinhalese identity is protected from external influence. This can be a significant reason to engage minimally with India because it is a Hindu majority country. Therefore, as a foreign policy tool, Buddhism cannot be ignored in Sri Lanka, and the Chinese have successfully used it compared to India. Thus, irrespective of India using Buddhism as a soft power tool to counterbalance the Chinese influence on the island, India has to strengthen their relationship with Sri Lanka in other strategic fields such as maritime cooperation, financial assistance, diplomatic relations, and others.

(Shivani Sunder is a research intern at C3S. Her areas of interest include India-Sri Lanka ties & Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy. The views expressed are personal)


Pigman, Stuart Murray and Geoffrey Allen. 2014. “Mapping the relationship between international sport and diplomacy.” Sport in Society 17 (9): 1099.

Ramachandran, Sudha. 2019. Rivalries and Relics: Examining China’s Buddhist Public Diplomacy. The Jamestown Foundation, March

Sivaloganathan, Barana Waidyatilake and Myra. 2018. “Can Buddhist Values Overcome Nationalism in Sri Lanka?” Carnegie India. July 25. Accessed January 28, 2021.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1992. “Buddhist Nationalism and Buddhist Democracy.” In Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka, by Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, 107. The University of Chicago Press.

Miller, Peshan Gunaratne and J. Berkshire. 2015. “Sri Lanka: Balancing Ties Between China and the West.” The Diplomat. May 26. Accessed January 13, 2021.

WION. 2020. “As polls approach in Sri Lanka, China begins cultivating Buddhist clergy.” WION. July 30. Accessed January 30, 2021.

Mendis, Patrick. 2013. “China’s Buddhist Diplomacy: Why Do America and India Entangle with Tiny Sri Lanka?” Journal of International Affairs .

Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. 2015. Sri Lankan Buddhist delegation participating in the 4th World Buddhist Forum in China. November 2.

BusinessLine. 2020. “Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa offers prayers at Tirumala.” BusinessLine. February 11. Accessed January 30, 2020.

Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy. 2020. “India extends $15 million grant for the promotion of Buddhist ties with Sri Lanka Read more at:” The Economic Times. September 26. Accessed January 30, 2021.

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