As part of their growing competition for influence in Asia, China and India are using the Buddha as weapon: sponsoring conferences, financing religious sites, and displaying relics in countries where the religion is widely adhered to.
In December, India and Myanmar co-sponsored a three-day conference of Buddhist scholars at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in Yangon. India's Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid joined Myanmar's vice-president U Sai Mauk to inaugurate the conference, which brought together people from across southeast Asia.
"As the international community watches Myanmar with renewed interest, it is only apt that this important meeting of scholars - designed to provide us with a better understanding of the depth and global spread of Buddhist influences - is being organised in this golden land, Suvarnabhumi," Khurshid said in his speech.
Khurshid also attended a ceremony to mark the unveiling of a five-metre statue of the Buddha in Yangon's glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most revered Buddhist shrine. The statue had been donated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Myanmar in May.
"Buddhism in Asia is one of our greatest assets, a definite element in our soft power."
- Krishnan Srinivasan, former Indian foreign secretary
Using the Buddha to culturally engage Myanmar makes sense, as nearly 90 percent of its people practice the religion. But India's actions are also seen as a response to recent, similar Chinese moves.
In November 2011, China sent a Buddha tooth relic on a mobile display to several cities in Myanmar, including former capital Yangon and present capital Naypyidaw. This relic had been preserved in Beijing's Lingguang Si Temple and it drew huge crowds of prayerful worshippers. The event was widely reported in Chinese media, and was followed by an agreement between the Lingguang Si Temple and Shwedagon Pagoda to promote religious ties between the two nations.
Myanmar is a growing focus of China-India competition. New Delhi is seeking to build roads, modernise ports and build dams to counter China's already impressive array of infrastructure projects in the country.
India is trying to improve access to its remote northeastern region by modernising the Sittwe port in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state and dredging the Kaladan River that forms part of the border between Myanmar and India. Meanwhile, China is constructing a deep port at Kyaukpyu, also in Myanmar's Rakhine state. It is also building an oil-gas pipeline from near the new port to China's Yunnan Province to transport fuel from the Middle East, while avoiding the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia, which Chinese strategists see as a choke point.
Diplomats say India can use its soft power in this jockeying for influence. "Buddhism in Asia is one of our greatest assets, a definite element in our soft power. And being home to the Dalai Lama, who is the acknowledged leader of a large section of the Buddhist community, gives us a major advantage," said former Indian foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan.
Srinivasan said China now accepts Buddhism along with other religions, and is promoting its civilisational traditions abroad. "But it has a long way to go to match India," he said, while conceding Beijing also "has far greater financial resources to deploy".
China has projected its culture through the ever-increasing number of "Confucius centres" worldwide, but has lately turned to using Buddhism.
"This is not just a defensive move by Beijing to counter global criticisms of its policy in Tibet, where more and monks are self-immolating in protest against persecution," international relations expert Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chaudhuri told Al Jazeera.
"It is also to play on religious and cultural feelings to connect to countries which are largely Buddhist. This is diplomatic pragmatism unexpected of a communist country but not unexpected of today's China."
Renovating Buddha's birthplace
In Nepal, China is financing a $3bn project to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, with a new airport, a connecting highway, hotels, convention centres, temples and a Buddhist university. In 2011, the Beijing-based Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation to develop the project.
A few months after the China-financed Lumbini project was announced, India promptly organised a Global Buddhist Congregation through the Delhi-based Ashoka Mission. The congregation brought together top monks and nuns from across the world, and ended up endorsing the Dalai Lama, Beijing's bete noire, as Buddhists' global leader - emphasising India's central role in preserving Buddhism's ancient heritage.
"Beijing wants to be the sole authority on the selection of [the] Dalai Lama in the future."
- Binoda Mishra, China expert
The International Buddhist Confederation that emerged from this congregation, which envisaged a central role for the Dalai Lama, could act as a lever for India to counter China's moves in the Buddhist world.
In fact, Beijing raised objections to the Dalai Lama's participation in the Global Buddhist Congregation and was upset when Delhi refused to stop him from addressing its valedictory session. It angered Chinese officials enough that they delayed a round of border negotiations. The dialogue to settle the Sino-Indian border later resumed, but Beijing had made clear its displeasure.
Some see a long-term vision in the inception of the International Buddhist Confederation.
"This has been set up with much more strategic foresight than just a reaction to China's action on Lumbini," said China-watcher Binoda Mishra, head of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development.
"It aims at nullifying Chinese future plans of securing the right to interfere in the selection of future Dalai Lamas, because Beijing wants to be the sole authority on the selection of [the] Dalai Lama in the future."
Nepal is an important buffer between India and China, and New Delhi is as uncomfortable with Beijing's growing influence there as in Myanmar.
In August, India took the "Kapilavastu Relics" to Sri Lanka, which had been preserved in the National Museum in New Delhi. The relics were taken around the island nation, drawing large number of Buddhists who prayed before them.
Growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka is also worrying India.
Indian planners worry about a "strategic encirclement" by China, which has steadily improved relations with almost all of India's neighbours: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar, a set some have called the Chinese "string of pearls".
For its part, China is worried by India's growing ties with countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Australia and others. Its strategists are concerned that the US is seeking to bring India together with these countries in order to contain China.
Beijing has asked New Delhi to back off from hydrocarbon exploration in the hotly disputed South China Sea.
With no end to the tension in site, Buddhism could well continue to be an important element of soft power that both India and China are likely to use in the years ahead to win hearts and minds across the vast continent.
But some wish the two Asian giants would work together rather than compete. "It would be good to see India and China act co-operatively to protect Asian religious heritage," said former foreign secretary Srinivasan. "But that is still some way ahead for the future."
Source: Al Jazeera