Written by Peter Martin.

Sino-Indian relations lack depth. Leaders of the two countries have long exchanged platitudes about the ancient ties that bind them together, but this has remained a remarkably shallow bilateral relationship, focused on the politics of territorial competition at the expense of business, economics, culture and history. That’s what makes some of the rhetoric coming out of the emerging relationship between India’s new prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and Xi Jinping so interesting.

In their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in July, the pair hailed the promise of Buddhism in developing ties between India and China. In the run-up to Xi’s India visit in September, Modi repeated this message, tweeting to his nearly 8 million followers that, “Buddhism is a very strong bond between India and China” and highlighting the visit of 7th century Chinese traveler and Buddhist convert, Xuanzang, to his home state of Gujarat. After touring Gujarat with Modi as part of a bilateral visit that pledged to strengthen investment, tourism and Chinese language learning in India as well as address the border dispute, Xi made a reciprocal gesture by inviting Modi to Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province, where Xi spent years as a “sent down” youth in the Cultural Revolution and the place where Xuanzang spent his final years.

So can Buddhism help build trust in Sino-Indian relations? It’s easy to see the appeal. Talk of religious amity offers the possibility of an alternative narrative for the historically competitive bilateral relationship. Highlighting the achievements of their ancient cultures also fits nicely with parallel political narratives of both Xi and Modi about restoring their respective nations to their former glory. Moreover, China has had some success with Buddhist diplomacy in the past, using it to promote ties with Nepal, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, as well as reconciliation with Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some also speculate that Buddhism is especially close to Xi’s heart, pointing out that his wife is a devout follower of the religion and that his father, revolutionary elder Xi Zhongxun, for many years wore a watch given to him by the young Dalai Lama.

In fact, talk of using Buddhism to strengthen the China-India relationship is not new. It builds on initiatives undertaken in the Hu-Wen era that date back as far as Nehru and Zhou Enlai. In 2006, China’s 10-point agreement with India featured a commitment to assist in the restoration of Nalanda University in India where Xuanzang once studied and taught. In February 2007, Chinese Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing, unveiled a statue to Xuanzang in Bihar; the lead up to the unveiling involved a televised pilgrimage organized by China’s State Council Information Office which retraced Xuanzang’s steps across India.  In 2011, China donated US$ 1 million to a pan-Asian project to restore Nalanda University, a gesture described by Wen Jiabao at the time as “a friendly gesture from the Chinese people to the Indian people.” In the early years of the People’s Republic, before the Cultural Revolution rendered religious diplomacy a complete taboo, Zhou Enlai dispatched the young Dalai Lama to India with part of Xuanzang’s skull in a somewhat macabre gesture of goodwill between the countries (the Dalai Lama of course dispatched himself to India a few years later in very different circumstances).

In all these past efforts, the desire to use religion as a means to improve the bilateral relationship appears to have been sincere. The impact of these initiatives has been limited, however, partly because geopolitical issues proved difficult to shelve, but also because they failed to reach beyond political elites and foster real people-to-people contact. While the Xi-Modi initiatives are short on details so far, there has been no sign yet that this time will be different. Indeed, there are some fundamental reasons to doubt the chances of success.

For a start, there aren’t many Buddhists in India. Buddhism entered a prolonged decline in the country of its foundation from the early 4th century CE and was in irreversible decline by the 12th century. Despite a modest revival at the beginning of the 19th century and a more significant movement linked to social reform and the rejection of “untouchability” in the 1950s, the religion continues to be a minor force in Indian society. It currently boasts just 8 million followers, less than one percent of India’s population.

Second, Buddhist diplomacy has been a source of more controversy and competition for China and India than reconciliation in recent years. China’s use of Buddhist diplomacy to connect with Nepal and Sri Lanka is viewed in Delhi as a part of its broader attempts to edge in on India’s traditional sphere of influence. Conversely, India’s hosting of the Global Buddhist Congregation in 2011 was seen by many in China as a move to compete with China’s own patronage of Buddhist gatherings, especially the World Buddhist Forum. China has hosted the Forum three times since its inception in 2006 in Hangzhou, which involved the meeting of more than 1,000 participants from 34 countries under the auspices of CPC rising star and then Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province, Xi Jinping.

Third, efforts to promote real dialogue or exchange between the countries are likely to be limited by the sensitive and tightly-controlled nature of religion in China. Mirroring the awkward exchanges between the two countries in track two dialogues, religious exchanges between India and China are likely to see India’s thriving and almost recreationally argumentative civil society butt up against the carefully-crafted and politically correct statements of state-selected Chinese representatives of the faith.

Indeed, for Beijing, censorship of the Buddhist agenda with its neighbors – and especially India – is a necessity. While Chinese or Han Buddhism may lack the record of Christianity for stirring political controversy in the country, Beijing is aware of the potential for the religion as a basis for organizing unrest, as demonstrated most clearly in Myanmar. Most thorny of all, however, is the issue of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama.

China has of course systematically excluded the Dalai Lama from its own Buddhist diplomacy, which it uses in part as a means of countering the charismatic sage’s soft power on the world stage, as well as to buttress arguments about its peaceful rise and a “harmonious world” with support from ancient philosophy. This kind of exclusion of the Dalai Lama is almost unthinkable in the Indian context. In India, the Dalai Lama is a respected spiritual figure. The country’s political establishment takes pride in providing a home for the exiled leader, who has played a leading role in the modest revival of Buddhism in India in recent years. Even if they wanted to exclude him, Indian leaders would face public pressure not to do so, whatever the feelings of Beijing. Indeed, India’s 2011 Global Buddhist Congregation not only invited the Dalai Lama, but asked him to give a key note speech, a move that promoted strong protests from China.

All of this suggests that, unless New Delhi is willing to accept Buddhism on Beijing’s terms, efforts to promote Sino-Indian friendship based on the religion are unlikely to go far. Beijing’s willingness and ability to control religion, together with Buddhism’s lack of a tradition of political activism in China, may make it a useful diplomatic tool for the post-Communist Chinese state. However, India’s own religious openness and the pride that its political and intellectual elites take in the founding of the religion in India 2,500 years ago, means that it is unlikely to be able or willing to bow to Beijing’s wishes. Xi and Modi may have to look elsewhere for inner peace in Sino-Indian relations.

Peter Martin is associate director of APCO Worldwide, based in New Delhi. He tweets @petemartin7. Image Credit: CC by Ashu Mittal/Flickr.