Buddha tooth relic diplomacy

China's "charm offensive" in Southeast Asia

Published July 19, 2006 6:55PM (EDT)

In 1994, China sent a sacred relic of the Buddha, his left eyetooth, to Burma for a visit. As recounted by Juliane Schober, a professor of religious studies at Arizona State, the Chinese Sacred Tooth's flight to Burma "was accompanied by a delegation of eight Mahayana, three Tibetan Lamas, four Yunnanese Theravada monks, and eleven laypersons, including the deputy director of the bureau of religious affairs, Mr. Luo San Chinai, the Burmese minister of religious affairs and chairman of the Buddha Tooth Relic Conveyance Work Committee, Lieutenant General Myo Nyunt, and officials from the religious and foreign affairs ministries."

Once arrived, "a cast of more than 5,000 members of the military, civil servants, actors in costumes of celestial devas, and royal servicemen staged a dramatic fanfare. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets of the capital to watch as the procession passed by with its elephant-drawn carriage and festive emissaries. The motorcade included the limousines of political and religious dignitaries and dozens of buses with schoolchildren, university students, pagoda trustees, and representatives from music, film, and literary guilds, the national development organization, Unity Solidarity Development Association, Hindu and Chinese religious associations, the Red Cross, and the fire brigade."

Relics of the Buddha are a big deal in Asia, and lately, China has been employing its custodianship of the tooth to great diplomatic advantage. The tooth relic made another visit to Burma in 1997 and has also made stops in Thailand and Hong Kong. According to Milton Osborne, an Australian scholar and diplomat, the journeys of the highly symbolic and religiously potent canine are part of the impressive "charm offensive" China has conducted in its "backyard" over the last decade.

Osborne's comments are part of his newly released study of China's relationship with the countries of Southeast Asia (thanks to New Economist for the link), "The Paramount Power."

Osborne details an astonishing transformation. Not so long ago, China was a financial supporter of revolutionary Communist parties throughout Southeast Asia. It invaded Vietnam (for the 17th time!) in 1979. As recently as 1995 it was stirring up geopolitical tension by claiming ownership of disputed islands in the South China Sea. But today, in sharp contrast to the United States, which is viewed by many Southeast Asians as unilaterally obsessed with terrorism to the exclusion of all else, China has fostered strong diplomatic and economic relationships with its neighbors to the south.

Part of this is pragmatic realpolitik on the part of countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. There is no ignoring the economic might of China, and the prosperity of the entire region is intimately connected to the fortunes of China. Part of it is an unsavory "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours" quid pro quo. The ASEAN nations were careful not to criticize China after its 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen, and China never criticizes its authoritarian neighbors on human rights grounds.

But part of it is also due to skillful evocation of a shared cultural and historical background that is alluded to both symbolically and historically by the Sacred Tooth. China, like all the rest of Southeast Asia, excluding Thailand, was a victim of colonialism. Echoes of that era continue to reverberate -- as Osborne notes, during the Asian financial crisis of the late '90s, China made friends by refusing to devalue its currency, which would have hurt its suffering neighbors. Its actions, writes Osborne, were seen as a sharp contrast to "the domineering attitude of the International Monetary Fund, memorably captured in the photograph of the Managing Director of the Fund, Michel Camdessus, standing with arms folded and looming over [Indonesian President] Suharto as he signed the agreement for Indonesia to receive money from that international body."

The tooth itself was nearly a victim of imperialism. Long housed in a 13-story pagoda in Beijing, it was temporarily lost when the temple was damaged by the Western expeditionary forces dispatched to crush the Boxer Rebellion at the dawn of the 20th century. Afterward, it was reportedly discovered by some Buddhist monks in the temple's ruins.

No one in Asia underestimates the military strength of the world's supreme superpower, the United States. But it's instructive that over the last decade, China has managed to charm its neighbors and solidify diplomatic and economic relationships, while the U.S., going its own way, has succeeded mainly in making everyone very, very nervous.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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