Religion as a Tool of Influence: Buddhism and China's Belt and Road Initiative in Mainland Southeast Asia.

AuthorRaymond, Gregory V.

Jack Ma's "devout Buddhism" [khreng satsana phut) has been widely reported during the celebrity businessman's visits to Thailand in recent years. (1) According to Thai religious philosopher Dr Sinchai Chaojaroenrat, "Jack Ma follows Buddhism like the Thai people." (2) During his visits, the multibillionaire and former head of China's e-commerce giant Alibaba discussed Buddhism and mentioned Thailand as a source of Buddhist thought. (3) But Ma has not mentioned his longstanding membership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in these discussions, which according to Party rules forbids this religious practice. (4)

This article addresses the increasing presence of Buddhist outreach in China's diplomacy towards mainland Southeast Asia, a topic not previously addressed in published research. It uses Chinese and Thai-language sources and incorporates fleldwork conducted in southern China and mainland Southeast Asia in January and September 2019. It presents early evidence that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is evolving to incorporate people-to-people links as one of its five official goals. (5)

The BRI is the signature foreign policy initiative of President Xi Jinping. Xi announced the policy during a visit to Central and Southeast Asia in October 2013, calling it at that time the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and then subsequently by the umbrella term One Belt One Road [yi dai yi lu). (6) The policy drew on older practices of infrastructure diplomacy, but this time, led by the National Development and Reform Commission, comprised a mix of economic and foreign policy objectives ranging from counteracting the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia, to exporting China's industrial overcapacity. (7) In 2017, the policy was renamed the Belt and Road Initiative but the Chinese language term remained the same. (8) In Southeast Asia the BRI aims to leverage Yunnan Province's location, and comprises economic corridors that pass through Myanmar (the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC)) and Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia (the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC)). (9)

While the mainstay of China's push for influence in mainland Southeast Asia will be economic and infrastructural, the advent of an ideational aspect may mark a new phase in which culture, values and worldview occupy a larger place in China's approach to the subregion. As Bruno Macaes argues:

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China realized that it ran the risk of becoming a giant Singapore or Hong Kong, an economic powerhouse linked to the rest of the world by trade links, but otherwise a political island, incapable of offering the outside world its own vision of a universal culture and universal values and ultimately dependent on a global system it did not create and cannot control. Now that China is, according to most estimates, already the largest economy in the world, it feels that its political and cultural influence needs to grow proportionately, starting with its periphery in South-East and Central Asia. (10) This article argues that while China's Buddhist diplomacy predates the BRI, its focus and character has sharpened under President Xi Jinping. It is now firmly under the control of China's United Front Work Department (UFWD), the organization founded by Mao Tse Tung to conduct the united front work of "rallying all those who can be rallied; uniting with all those who can be united" as well as isolating CCP enemies. (11) United front work began as early as the struggle against the Kuomintang [Nationalists) and continued in the transition to socialism from 1949 to 1956. (12) Because of this connection with the UFWD, and the fact that the avowedly irreligious CCP is promoting Buddhist outreach towards Southeast Asian Buddhist clergy, including senior sangha, it is best understood as a type of influence operation rather than merely a form of Chinese soft power. The article begins by considering the frameworks available for theorizing the place of religion in international politics, including soft power, influence operations and shared world views. Secondly, it appraises how the CCP manages Buddhism, surveys current evidence for Buddhist diplomacy forming part of the BRI, and explores China's current Buddhist relations with Southeast Asia. It does so in the context of four Theravada Buddhist mainland Southeast Asian countries: Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Thirdly, it considers the prospects of China's Buddhist influence yielding political benefits by examining the relationship between Buddhism and politics in each of the four countries, and the challenges China may face in deploying Buddhist diplomacy. Finally, it considers the possibility that China's efforts in the ideational realm may lay the foundations for a greater commonality of worldview between China and mainland Southeast Asia, thereby offsetting concerns about the BRI, paving the way for new forms of community and solidifying China's role as a setter of norms.

Theoretical and Conceptual Frameworks

This article analyses Buddhism, in the context of China's emerging relations with mainland Southeast Asia, through three prisms: soft power, influence operations and shared worldviews. These lenses have been chosen for the following reasons. First, soft power is a term that is frequently employed by China itself when describing its cultural and religious diplomacy. (13) Second, given the increased role of the party-state and the UFWD in China's foreign policy during the Xi Jinping era, seeing China's Buddhist diplomacy as a type of "influence operation" is warranted. Third, testing the relevance of shared worldviews to understand China's Buddhist diplomacy is useful because China is becoming active as a purveyor of new norms and concepts of global community. (14)

With regard to soft power, American political scientist Joseph Nye first expounded this idea in a Foreign Policy article in 1990, defining it as power that accrues "when one country gets other countries to want what it wants". (15) The attractiveness of a country's norms, culture and ideology generates soft power. Since the 1950s, America's democracy, movies, clothes and lifestyle have all been seen as being desirable in many parts of the world, and in recent times its consumer products (e.g. iPhones) and music (e.g. rap and hip-hop) remain internationally attractive. Nye argued that these soft power assets helped the United States maintain its leadership position.

Over time the notion of soft power has expanded to denote policies that seek to court rather than coerce. Apropos of this broader interpretation, a large body of literature has explored China's soft power policies in different regional settings. (16) Writers commonly focus on Confucius Institutes, which seek to increase the teaching of the Chinese language as well as boost awareness of Chinese culture more broadly. (17) Juyan Zhang has situated China's Buddhist diplomacy similarly, as China seeks to increase its soft power by "tapping various faiths for diplomatic purposes". (18) Arguably, these state-directed policies are not consistent with Nye's original definition, where soft power emanates from the intrinsic culture of civil society and politics, rather than from specifically-engineered foreign policies.

In the context of China in the Xi Jinping era, the use of religion in diplomacy can also be understood as a type of influence operation. Influence operations involve co-opting individuals who, while not party members or natural allies, can represent the CCP's views in exchange for status or material benefits. In the last decade, Xi Jinping has increased the priority of influence operations, primarily through the work of the UFWD, a key department of the CCP Central Committee. In 2014, Xi called the UFWD one of the CCP's "magic weapons", increased its headcount by some 40,000, and elevated its status by appointing a Politburo member to run it. (19) Anne-Marie Brady has shown how the Department has infiltrated Chinese associations in New Zealand to direct their political views and encouraged the Chinese diaspora to get involved in the country's politics. (20)

In some ways, the Buddhist diplomacy activities described in this article resemble the kinds of public diplomacy activities that diplomatic missions carry out, using cultural assets to improve their country's international image and further its national interests. Nonetheless, they cannot be simply equated with standard public diplomacy. First, the who counts. Many of the Buddhist diplomacy activities described in this article are carried out with the supervision of the UFWD and organizations under its control, such as the Buddhist Association of China. Second, given that members of the CCP are forbidden to practise Buddhism, (21) the promotion of links between Buddhists in China and abroad means that China's Buddhist diplomacy is insincere and even Machiavellian, consistent with Lenin's admonition to take advantage of "every, even the smallest, opportunity of gaining a mass ally, even though this ally be temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional". (22) Third, under Xi the UFWD has been specifically directed to support the BRI. (23) As shown in the next section, there is an abundance of Buddhist diplomacy activities specifically tied to the BRI. Fourth, there is evidence that these activities can be used to promote political views consistent with the policies of the CCP, such as over the South China Sea dispute.

A third way of understanding the significance of religion in politics is through the notion of shared worldviews. Religion can help constitute a system of shared perceptions such that a group of independent polities could become, in the language of English School theorist Hedley Bull, an "international society". (24) Prior to the advent of the Westphalian state system, the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT