By Dr Patrick Mendis
Professor Patrick Mendis is an associate-in-research of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.
In the midst of chaos in Washington, the Trump White House reinvented the old concept of “Indo-Pacific” region as a new lexicon to include India to its “arch of democracies” and the military allies of Australia, Japan, and South Korea–known as the quadrilateral approach to prevent China’s rise in the Indian Ocean. Although India has no formal military alliance with the United States yet, New Delhi has invoked its ancient Buddhist links as tools of diplomacy—long after Beijing did—to deal with India’s Buddhist neighbour, Sri Lanka.
The island-nation is a key interlocutor to this Indo-Pacific dialogue as the “New Era” of President Xi Jinping through his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is gaining greater power in the future of the Buddhist kingdom. The evolving BRI as China’s primary foreign and economic policy is now enshrined in the constitution of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the 19th National Congress. The policy is intended to create a new “Pacific” world order—with far-reaching implications for Sri Lanka and India in the next 99 years.
The grand strategy has been an instrument of the deliberate policy-planning to achieve the “China Dream” and the “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation and its ancient culture. The cultural aspects of BRI have no comparable achievement other than the near-completion of the Colombo Lotus Tower (CLT) in Sri Lanka, which will be the tallest structure in South Asia and the nineteenth tallest edifice in the world.
The tower, named in deference to Buddha’s Lotus Sutra, represents historical ties and reaffirms the Buddhist bonds between China and Sri Lanka. In fact, the highly-sophisticated telecommunication tower is a physical manifestation of China’s foreign policy slogan of a “Peaceful Rise.” The 350-meter high Lotus Tower cleverly embodies a Buddhist emblem of peace that harkens back to the ancient power that once radiated from the middle kingdom of the Dragon and its connection to the Buddhist kingdom of Lanka, the “Lion”.
The future belongs to the history
Sri Lanka has quietly become the “Crown Pearl” of China’s multi-billion dollar BRI strategy in the Indian Ocean. It connects the “Pearl River” in the Guangdong province of China and the “Pearl Square” of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
As a trading and religious nation for millennia, the Buddhist kingdom of Sri Lanka has always acted as a magnifying conduit to disseminate Buddha’s noble “Dharmic” teachings around the world. It also attracted Buddhist scholars like the famous Chinese monk Fa-Hsien (399-414 AD), who later adopted the spiritual name Faxian (the “Splendor of Dharma”), during the Eastern Jin dynasty. In his famous book, A Record of the Buddhistic Kingdoms, Fa-Hsien meticulously described the compassionate behaviour of the Buddhist community and its rulers on the island.
Another legendary Chinese monk-scholar Xuanzang (602-664 AD) in the Buddhist golden age of the Tang dynasty was inspired by Fa-Hsien’s travelogue but the Tang envoy was not able to visit Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, Xuanzang profiled in detail the Buddhist affairs of Sri Lanka from the various documents and numerous eyewitness accounts of other travellers and pilgrims whom he met in India.
The son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta, the two Buddhist emissaries of the great emperor Ashoka of India (268-232 BC), brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Over the course of history, Arab traders introduced Islam; Indian rulers promoted Hinduism; European colonists presented Christianity to the indigenous Buddhist people. Yet, throughout the millennia the island nation has remained predominantly a Buddhist depository of teaching and learning in its original form of Theravada tradition (the lesser vehicle) while accommodating various other Buddhist sects and co-existing with the Mahayana tradition (the greater vehicle) of Buddhism, as Fa-Hsien documented in the shared destiny of the Buddhist kingdom.
The Buddhist gravitas
The Chinese imperial interests in the Buddhist kingdom go back to the great Kublai Khan (1215–94) who believed in Buddhist treasures as a magnet for unifying the culturally, religiously, and linguistically diverse Chinese nation.
More importantly, however, the salient feature of Buddhist philosophy was that it had the remarkable ability to integrate easily the moral and ethical teachings of Confucianism in human relationships and the celestial notions of Daoist traditions in the realm of eternal and intangible life. Thus, indigenous Confucian and Daoist philosophies in China welcomed the arrival of the Buddhist philosophy of life and Enlightenment to end human suffering. Henceforth, the self-evident and reality-based Buddhism steadily integrated its Middle Path of livelihood between the existing practice of Confucianism in the daytime and the Daoism in the nighttime for a happy and healthy life in a harmonious society.
Knowing its practical value in governance and unifying the nation, the Mongol founder of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) 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 two-year travelogue of Chinese monk Fa-Hsien—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 long before the beginning of the Yuan dynasty.
The Returns of the Ming
Centuries later, the Ming emperor Yongle’s Muslim envoy, Admiral Zheng made his maiden voyage to Sri Lanka in 1405. In a traditional Confucian manner, the admiral demanded that the Sinhalese king pay tribute and obedience to the Chinese 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 millennia.
Apart from religious and political objectives in Sri Lanka, the Chinese expeditions, in general, were commercially motivated. An archaeological tablet, found at the southern port city of Galle, dated 15 February 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 (Sri Pada) mountain. The Tamil script praises the god Vishnu; the Persian text invokes Allah. The inscription has a message to the world invoking “the blessings of the Hindu deities for a peaceful world built on trade.” Above all, commercial and cultural diplomacy was the most vital aspect of all seven of Ming voyages to the region between 1405 and 1433.
Princes of Sri Lanka in China
One of the enduring connection of the Ming era is linked to a powerful Sri Lankan king. The Chinese authorities in Fujian province found various archaeological and ancestral evidence of Chinese descendants of Sri Lankan prince in Quanzhou in Fujian province. The 53-year old Xushi Yine, known as “Kumarikawa” in Sinhalese or the Princess, is a 19th generation descendant of the Sri Lankan prince, who was known in China as Prince Ba Laina. Chinese archaeologists excavated the tombstones describing the graveyard of the descendants of Prince Ba, who was considered a son of King Parakramabahu VI of the Kotte kingdom (1412-67).
The maritime city of Fujian province, where the Muslim admiral Zheng used primarily as his port of exploration, resembles a collection of Buddhist pagodas, Muslim mosques, Hindu kovils and Christian churches in Sri Lanka. Both places symbolize the classic examples of the metropolitan mindset of the Chinese and Sri Lankan people.
The revival after colonialism
During European colonialism, the historical episodes of Sino-Sri Lanka relations were dormant for almost five hundred 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—the Rubber-Rice Pact—with China in 1952 soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Since 1957, formal diplomatic relations began to expand, as several heads of state have visited each other’s capitals. The completion of the massive Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in 1973 was a landmark of friendship, among other projects.
More recently, Sri Lanka established close relations as China provided military, financial, and diplomatic support to Sri Lanka to defeat the separatist Tamil Tigers, ending the over-quarter-century-old Eelam War in 2009. The new Sino-Sri Lankan relationship could be heralded as momentous in their post-war cultural and economic collaboration—which is viewed as mutually beneficial, win-win formula for the two nations.
Since 2010, China has been the largest donor with multi-billion dollar investments in the form of loans, credits and grants in almost every sector of the island’s economy. These range from the massive infrastructure development projects to the building of hospitals, energy sources, public offices and cultural endowments like the Lotus Pond Performing Arts and Theater in Colombo.
Today Sri Lanka is being modernized by the newly-built deep-sea Hambantota Port, the Mattala International Airport, the Colombo Port City, among other huge development projects. In recent years, an ever-increasing number of Chinese tourists are calling upon the places of religious worship—like the Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha in Kandy and other ancient sites of cultural and historic importance such as the Pahiyangala or the Fa-Hsien Rock in Kalutara—for good reasons.
Rejuvenation by Xi’s BRI
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. The defence and maritime security cooperation agreement, which assigned the rights to explore Sri Lanka’s ocean for the wreckage of treasure fleets of the Ming envoy He, raised alarms in Washington and New Delhi.
For India and the United States, the 21st century Maritime Silk Road initiative is viewed as having a doubling effect with the CLT, which encompasses the most advanced telecommunication and information-gathering centre in South Asia. It would essentially give China the most needed competitive advantage in the freedom of navigation and other affairs of the Indian Ocean from eastern Africa to western Australia and in-between.
Symbolized by the Buddhist-inspired Lotus Tower on the waterfront of the picturesque Beira Lake in the commercial harbour city of Colombo, the globalizing BRI is reviving the ancient glory of “trade-for-peace” to bring about a more harmonious and prosperous Asian-Pacific region. In this respect, Sri Lanka has never been an island and it will never be, as it has always been engaged in commercial affairs and diplomatic relations with the ancient Chinese and European imperial courts.
In retrospect, however, the management of Buddhist links, trade interests, and strategic alliances between China and the quadrilateral countries of Australia, India, South Korea, and the United States is the greatest geopolitical challenge for the island nation in the years to come as the BRI unleashes its hidden power of dominance in the Indian Ocean.
In this case, there is a high likelihood that Sri Lanka will soon—if not already—be governed by Beijing as the two strategic parcels of land in the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota harbour have already been leased to China for 99 years. This occurred when the new Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government—campaigned for “good governance” or Yahapalanaya—recently realized that they cannot repay the Chinese loans (and accrued interests) acquired by the previous regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose family of politicians and diplomats became wealthy overnight. With the return of good governance and transparency, the government pointed out that the well-over 80 percent of Sri Lanka’s national revenues is now being used for servicing the multi-billion dollar Chinese investments in massive development projects negotiated during Rajapaksa’s rule.
With these obligations, the Buddhist kingdom—as well as other BRI-involved countries like Myanmar and Pakistan—is largely trapped in national-debt linked to China. It is a never-ending balancing act between the hunger for development needs and the protection of national sovereignty for Sri Lanka and other countries. In all this, it is becoming increasingly clear that the “New Era” of President Xi is unfolding quietly and steadily for a “Pacific” new world order that was unforeseen for the borrowers.
In observing the long legacy and the outlook for the future, the Sino-Lanka history seems to repeat itself as if the time of Ming-Kotte episode and the centuries-old encounters are continuing with the rejuvenation of the thriving civilization-state under President Xi. Like the Sri Lankan descendant Prince Xushi in Fujian province and Chinese nationals becoming leaders in other countries, it is entirely possible that a future president of Sri Lanka will be of Chinese descent by 2049—the centennial celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
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