Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 10, 2022 Updated 20 Days ago
Will Nepal be able to make the most out of the power rivalry between India and China using Buddhist diplomacy?
Nepal: A fertile ground for Buddhist diplomacy Prime Minister Modi made an official visit to Lumbini, Nepal—Lord Buddha's birthplace—on 16 May 2022 on the occasion of Buddha Purnima. This comes at a time when the world is becoming increasingly divided over the Ukraine conflict, when the role of the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is being questioned, and when the faith of the smaller nations in global and regional powers is steadily declining. Modi visited Nepal four times during his first term as the Prime Minister. Three years after he was sworn in 2019, he arrived in Lumbini to commemorate the 2566th birth anniversary of Gautam Buddha. Though the visit appeared to be spiritual, it was a political, economic, and diplomatic manoeuvre. Six Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) were signed which dealt with connectivity, energy, and education, primarily aimed at economically uplifting the population and revitalising the social and cultural ties between India and Nepal.

Modi’s presence in Lumbini does not just carry strategic or bilateral bearings; it is geostrategic as the power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) converges.

Carving a sphere of influence: India and China

Even though the visit happened recently, Lumbini has been important to both India and China. Modi’s presence in Lumbini does not just carry strategic or bilateral bearings; it is geostrategic as the power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) converges. Lumbini, the ‘abode of peace’ is becoming a place of symbolic meaning and ‘Buddhism’ is becoming a point for power rivalry between India and China. China is trying to carve out strategic influence using Buddhism as a tool to expand its footprints in India’s sphere of influence—the Himalayas, South Asia, and the larger Southeast Asian region. There seems to be a rise in Lumbini’s popularity as the centre of Buddhist diplomacy in the region. This has further received a boost with the laying of the foundation stone by both PM Modi and PM Deuba for India International Centre for Buddhist Cultural and Heritage in the Lumbini Monastic Zone. PM Deuba inaugurated the US $76.1-million Gautam Buddha International Airport, which was constructed by a Chinese company and financed by the Asian Development Bank through the South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project (US$37 million), the OPEC Fund for International Development (US $11 million), and the rest being financed by the Government of Nepal. In July 2011, the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation’s (APECF) Vice-President Xiao Wunan, held a signatory ceremony with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) for US $3 billion, hoping to bring all the practices of Buddhism together.  The investment is little less than 10 percent of Nepal’s GDP; it will not only come from the Chinese government but various other funds from around the world. Complementing ‘The Nepal–China Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network’, a multi-dollar railway linking Lhasa-Shigatse in Tibet to Keyrung onwards to Kathmandu and eventually Lumbini, was introduced as a part of the joint communique of the second conference of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in April 2019.

The investment is little less than 10 percent of Nepal’s GDP; it will not only come from the Chinese government but various other funds from around the world.

There are three facets to this initiative: First, it is an extension of President Hu Jintao’s ideology to the international arena, with the focus on international peace and cooperation by promoting a “harmonious society”; second, though a cross border 72.25-km railway line worth US $2.25 billion through the Himalayas linking Tibetan border town to Kathmandu and tourist towns to Pokhara and Lumbini is a noteworthy development, questions arise on the basis of the feasibility, rise of cost, debt trap, and geopolitical concerns. Finally, the cognitive dissonance is that it could also be a part of the communist ideology as an extension of its soft power. This raises the question if Nepal will continue to remain a buffer using Buddhism as a soft power tool and revive Lumbini as the centre and connector of Buddhist diplomacy between New Delhi and Beijing?

Internal cohesiveness and regional diplomacy of China

China’s diplomatic investments in Nepal and South Asia are expanding, whilst China and India are militarising the Himalayas with no signs of ever reaching a settlement. One can witness it in China’s interaction in the region as six out of the eight countries in the region have signed an MoU with China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China held three virtual meetings with Afghanistan, Nepal, and Pakistan in July 2020, October 2020, and 27 April 2021, as part of its pandemic diplomacy. Foreign Minister Yang Yi also visited Maldives and Sri Lanka in early January 2022, and a month later visited Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Three prolonged strategies can be witnessed here: First to safeguard its interest with respect to India, which intends to develop a close relationship with the United States and other western democratic world. Second, China’s engagement with the smaller nations is to limit India’s influence in the region. Last, to create internal cohesion through Buddhist correlation.

China held three virtual meetings with Afghanistan, Nepal, and Pakistan in July 2020, October 2020, and 27 April 2021, as part of its pandemic diplomacy.

Buddhist diplomacy was perceptible between Nepal and China from 2011 onwards, with the infrastructure projects that connect the Chinese mainland to the birthplace of Buddhism, which then was enforced during President Xi’s October 2019 Nepal visit. Nepal and China signed 20 agreements to boost connectivity, trade, economic assistance, and security upgrading their ties to strategic partnership vowing to “help Nepal realise its dream of becoming a land-linked country from a land-locked one”.

India’s geostrategic diplomacy

India stood steadfast on the strategic path of the “Neighborhood First” policy and “Act East” policy. New Delhi is also keen to take steps to counteract Beijing's political, economic, and military attempts to appropriate Buddhism and use it as a soft power in its outreach to the Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Modi said that the relationship between Nepal and India is unshakable like the Himalayas, indicating that India will deal with the challenges arising from China’s political influence by utilising strong cultural and bilateral ties. During his speech, PM Modi said, “The growing and strengthening friendship between India and Nepal will work for the benefit of the entire humanity amid the kind of global situation that is emerging today. The devotion of Lord Buddha binds us together and makes us members of one family.” Nepal and India relations are aiming to reach new heights by pushing Buddhist diplomacy as a geostrategic tool and other bilateral undertakings. Steps to strengthen party-to-party and government-to-government relationships are also being initiated.

Prime Minister Modi said that the relationship between Nepal and India is unshakable like the Himalayas, indicating that India will deal with the challenges arising from China’s political influence by utilising strong cultural and bilateral ties.

Conclusion

Though China is no longer a Buddhist majority country, China’s economic gains, spiritual desires, and Asian characteristics will enable Buddhism to make a comeback as a major practise in the region. However, the likelihood of India leading the soft power diplomacy cannot be discounted. This is a revival of religious diplomacy where religion plays a significant role in international diplomacy. It is a promising diplomatic strategy towards a peaceful unification of regional powers with culture at the centre. The Indo-Pacific region in the future will witness the influence of religion in international politics. The question that remains is: Will Nepal be able to leverage this for its own good?
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.

Contributor

Binoj Basnyat

Binoj Basnyat

Binoj Basnyat is a Strategic Analyst and former Major General of the Nepali Army.

Read More +