Despite the fact that Buddhism is no longer the majority religion in China, the country’s economic growth, aspirations for spirituality, and Asian traits will help Buddhism come back.
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.
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.
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?