Geopolitical fault lines have fractured like never before this year. The headlines seem to be here to stay: Sino-American tensions; COVID-19; trade wars and decoupling; tech supremacy; human rights. Of particular interest to Buddhist observers of Asian geopolitics is the Sino-Indian situation, pertaining not only to the recent border conflicts, which are serious enough in themselves, but also to the broader competition between India and China in writing the story of each nation’s place in the “civilizational leadership” of Asia. It is a passionate and sometimes ferocious back-and-forth, given the stakes to legitimacy and the real-world geopolitical shifts influencing (and being influenced by) the stances that other countries take in relation to India and China.
Since the articulation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—China’s global trade, investment, development, and diplomacy strategy sometimes referred to as the “New Silk Road”—an additional broad term has been added to this narrative competition between China and India: the concept of “shared values,” which has been contested in different ways. Since at least 2012, Buddhism has been a critical component in this narrative war of “shared values.” The present cross-border conflict (along historically Buddhist-influenced areas of the Himalayan region) has put into sharp focus a deterioration of Sino-Indian relations that were already shaky due to the Doklam Bhutanese border standoff of 2017. It also throws into striking contrast Chinese ambitions for economic and political influence and the strategic alliance between India and Japan as they each strive to shape the strategic terms of the Indo-Pacific.
Before he stepped down as Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe had lent his name to the Samvad program, an initiative that Buddhistdoor Global has covered since its inception in 2015. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi personally inaugurated the program at the strategic Vivekananda Foundation (VIF) in New Delhi, with input from retired Indian military leaders, analysts at the VIF, and its partnering organization the Tokyo Foundation (a maritime defense and economic think-tank). From Chinese president Xi Jinping’s stated perspective, Asia’s shared values are ostensibly cast in anti-imperialist rhetoric, reminiscent of Asian statesmen in the 20th century and Maoist literature: non-interference in internal affairs, no spheres of influence by large powers, and non-hegemonic designs. For India, “shared values” means an integration of ancient Indian values (and Buddhism is keenly cast as an Indic religion) and Western-style democracy, which guarantees a free society in touch with native traditions—a framing shared by Japanese participants in the Samvad project.
In its early days, Modi presented his Indo-Japanese Buddhist dialogue as just an alternative to the BRI. By 2017, however, Samvad was increasingly framed as a democratic alliance in direct opposition to the BRI, with India and Japan targeting countries around China’s periphery. Conclaves and smaller meetings invoking the Samvad name were held in Myanmar, Thailand, and Japan. The most recent and one of Samvad’s most significant victories occurred late last year in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Just a couple of weeks after the third Samvad conclave from 6–7 September, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released the Joint Statement on Strengthening the Strategic Partnership between India and Mongolia on 20 September. This is a commitment-rich document that sets both symbolic and practical targets indicating a closer alignment to India by Mongolia.
Buddhist responses to China and India’s contestation of the Eurasian “New Silk Road” have fluctuated between enthusiastic participation and lobbying a-la Samvad, but also apathy and uncertainty. As Bhikkhu Sanghasena—a prolific socially engaged Buddhist monk based in northern India and an adviser to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)—lamented about the recent military clashes along the remote Himalayan border between India and China: “India is a land of millions of yogis, rishis, and munis, who always said, ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’ [non-violence is the top-most duty]. Thus non-violence has been the first slogan of Indian gurus. I’m surprised no gurus have come up to speak for a peaceful solution of the border conflict between India and China.” (IDN) In other words, religious leaders as a whole, not only Buddhists, have become, in Bhikkhu Sanghasena’s eyes, passive bystanders on government agendas rather than active participants in the debate over what is best for their spiritual communities and for the future of Asia.
In Bhikkhu Sanghasena’s words lies a possible path forward as China and India’s rhetoric grows more adversarial. We have seen how active the Buddhist clergy have been behind the scenes in trying to bridge differences between North and South Korea. The idea of Buddhism as a “shared value” has so far been taken seriously on the Korean Peninsula, with Buddhist leaders both south and north acting as bridges and mediators between two seemingly implacably opponents. Perhaps the entrenchment of opposing strategic visions between China and India is inevitable, especially in a period of world history where the broader question is that of the Sino-American strategic conflict. The Trumpian legacy of adversarial relations with China, whether or not he wins re-election this year, will set the precedent of a bipartisan “distrust and verify” approach by America to China.
Yet sober minds in Beijing and Washington, DC, do not confuse decoupling (if it is even possible) with the end of diplomacy. Communication will still be critical. North Korea and South Korea are still technically at war, with occasional flare-ups of tensions, some of them severe. Yet the Buddhist leaders behind the scenes are still talking and inching as best as they can toward dialogue and cooperation. This should be the attitude taken by supporters of Samvad on the Indo-Japanese side and by the government-sanctioned segment of the Chinese Buddhist community and its affiliated organizations, including the critically important Chinese Buddhist Association. Rather than operating merely as passive support for siloed projects that do not talk to each other, Buddhist leaders involved with these soft diplomacy initiatives should acknowledge the elephant in the room that are the fundamental strategic and ideological differences, then open ongoing dialogue from there. If North and South Korea can do so, there is little excuse.
There is one final consideration. With Abe bowing out as prime minister, it is an open question whether his successor, Yoshihide Suga, famously the son of a strawberry farmer as opposed to Abe’s distinguished political family lineage, will be as keen as Abe was to support the Indo-Japanese Buddhist front. Indian policymakers have all but admitted in a paper released by foreign minister S. Jaishankar that Abe and Modi shared a personal friendship and ideological alignment that may not materialize with Suga. Maintaining the depth of the Indo-Japanese relationship seems to rest on New Delhi’s shoulders, especially since Suga is seen as a moderate in relation to China. These factors will all come into consideration in determining the future of the Samvad project—and how well it holds on to its gains as an openly democratic Buddhist-influenced project positioned against China’s Buddhist outreach overtures.
Whose vision will win out? That of an Indo-Pacific alliance of democratic, US-aligned Buddhist nations? Or the vaunted promise of an economically integrated Eurasian supercontinent between Beijing and Lisbon? This might be an incorrect framing of the true issue, an impediment to true harmony and conflict avoidance (the latter being the goal of Samvad in the first place). Like the ongoing Korean War, both rival visions have dug in, are technically not at peace, and will not be rid of each other for a long time to come barring some seismic and unexpected event. Asking which vision will “win” is an uncertain, unproductive, and (for the near future) unanswerable question. The future of Asia lies not in fealty to a single ideology or leader, but in differing, often adversarial parties walking the walk of true shared values.
The Dialogue Continues: An Indo-Japanese initiative for fostering cross-cultural understanding and Asian solidarity gains momentum across the region (Nikkei Asian Review)
India and China agree to stop sending troops to disputed Himalayan border (CNN)
SAMVAD Series of Conferences – India and Japan Find a Common Language on Shared Values (Vivekananda International Foundation)
Ladakh Buddhist Monk Leads A Campaign for Peaceful Resolution of Border Conflict (IDN)
Suga in Japan saddle, India will need to tweak template (The Times of India)