A Time-Honored and Booming Relationship
China and Sri Lanka together revive their ancient glory
By Patrick Mendis  ·  2017-10-23  ·   Source: | NO. 43 OCTOBER 26, 2017

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (4th right, front) and China's Ambassador to Sri Lanka Yi Xianliang (5th right, front) attend the impounding ceremony of the Moragahakanda Reservoir constructed by Sinohydro Corp. Ltd. of China in central Sri Lanka on January 11 (XINHUA)

Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping of China welcomed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka and another 28 foreign leaders at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. In the meantime, Sri Lanka is quietly becoming the "crown pearl" in the Indian Ocean of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, which connects the Pearl River in south China's Guangdong Province and the Pearl Square of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. The two countries will soon celebrate the $100-million-plus, all-encompassing Colombo Lotus Tower in the heart of the island nation's commercial city.

The tower, named in deference to the Buddha's Lotus Sutra, represents historical ties and reaffirms the Buddhist bonds between China and Sri Lanka. In fact, the highly-sophisticated telecommunication tower is a physical manifestation of China's foreign policy proclamation of a peaceful rise, and it will be the tallest structure in South Asia and the 19th tallest building in the world. The 350-meter-high Lotus Tower cleverly embodies a Buddhist emblem of peace that harkens back to the ancient power that once radiated from China.

Today, Sri Lanka is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multilingual nation. The island—with such diversity within a highly-educated and entrepreneurial population—remains a locus of travel and commerce in the Indian Ocean. It is now modernized by the multibillion-dollar Chinese investment in the newly built deep-sea Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport and Colombo Port City, among other development projects. In recent years, Sri Lanka has received ever-increasing numbers of Chinese tourists, who have become frequent and repeat visitors enjoying the island's sandy beaches and natural wonders. But more importantly, they are calling on places of religious worship and other ancient sites of cultural and historical importance for good reason.

Ancient bonds

As a trading and religious nation for millennia, the Buddhist kingdom of Sri Lanka has always acted as a magnifying conduit to diffuse Buddha's noble Dharmic teachings around the world. It also attracted Buddhist scholars like the famous Chinese monk Fa-Hsien, who later adopted the spiritual name Faxian, during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420). Another legendary Chinese monk-scholar Xuanzang in the Buddhist golden age of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was inspired by Fa-Hsien's travel, but the Tang envoy was not able to visit Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, Xuanzang profiled in detail the Buddhist affairs of Sri Lanka from the various documents and numerous eyewitness accounts of other travelers and pilgrims.

Over the years, Arab traders introduced Islam; Indian rulers promoted Hinduism; European colonists familiarized the indigenous Buddhist people with Christianity. Long before that, the island nation warmly welcomed the Buddhist emissaries of Emperor Ashoka of India whose reign lasted from 268-232 B.C. and introduced Buddhism. Since then, Sri Lanka has remained predominantly a Buddhist country of teaching and learning.

Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), believed in Buddhist treasures as a magnet for unifying the culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse Chinese nation. Knowing the faith's practical value in governance, Kublai Khan sent Marco Polo twice in 1284 and 1293 to Sri Lanka with the intent of taking the sacred tooth relics of Buddha back to China. The two-year travelogue of Fa-Hsien—written in the fifth century—described the Buddhist treasures in Sri Lanka, and his Chinese translation of Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts was widely known from the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty.

Almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, Admiral Zheng He, the envoy of the Ming Dynasty's (1368-1644) Emperor Yongle, made his maiden visit to Sri Lanka in 1405.

Apart from their religious and political objectives in Sri Lanka, all seven Ming voyages to the region between 1405 and 1433 in general were commercially motivated. An archaeological tablet, found at the southern port city of Galle, dated February 15, 1409, has a trilingual inscription—in Chinese, Persian and Tamil—indicating that the purpose of Zheng's visit was to announce the mandate of the Ming emperor and make known his legitimacy among foreign rulers. According to the inscription on the stele, the Ming diplomat offered valuable gifts like gold, silver and silk to a local Buddhist temple on Sri Pada Mountain. The Tamil script praises the god Vishnu; the Persian text invokes Allah; and the inscription also bears a message to the world invoking "the blessings of the Hindu deities for a peaceful world built on trade." Above all, commercial and cultural diplomacy was the most vital aspect of the Chinese expeditions.

Various pieces of archaeological and ancestral evidence show the existence of Chinese descendants of a Sri Lankan prince in Quanzhou in Fujian Province. The 53-year-old Xushi Yine, known as Kumarikawa in Sinhalese, meaning princess, is a 19th generation descendant of the Sri Lankan prince, who was known in China as Ba Laina.

The ancient Kotte Kingdom is currently called Sri Jayawardenepura-Kotte, the new capital of Sri Lanka. Like the island nation, Quanzhou attracted monks, merchants and explorers, including Persians, Arabs, and Europeans. This maritime city in Fujian, which Zheng used as his primary home port, resembles a collection of Buddhist pagodas, Muslim mosques, Hindu kovils and Christian churches in Sri Lanka. Both places symbolize classic examples of the metropolitan mindset of the Chinese and Sri Lankan peoples.

New impetus

In the midst of Western colonialism, the historical episodes of the Sri Lanka-China relationship were dormant for almost 500 years until Sri Lanka gained its independence from the Portuguese, the Dutch and lastly the British in 1948. The newly independent island nation established its first bilateral trade agreement with China in 1952 after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Since 1957, formal diplomatic relations have expanded, as several heads of state visits have taken place between the two nations. The completion of the massive Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in 1973, among other projects, was a landmark of friendship.

More recently, close bilateral ties have been fostered as China and Sri Lanka seek common ground for development. The new Sri Lanka-China relationship could be heralded as momentous given the two governments' cultural and economic collaboration, which is viewed as mutually beneficial and a win-win formula for the two nations.

During his visit to Sri Lanka in September 2014, President Xi described the island as a "splendid pearl," and the two countries signed over 20 bilateral agreements in Colombo. The defense and maritime security cooperation agreement, which assigned to China rights to explore Sri Lanka's waters for wreckage of Ming treasure fleets, raised alarms in Washington and New Delhi. For the United States and India, the strategically brilliant Belt and Road Initiative is viewed as having a doubling effect along with the Lotus Tower which includes the most advanced telecommunication and information-gathering center in South Asia. Together, these developments will essentially give China a most-needed competitive advantage in freedom of navigation and other affairs throughout the Indian Ocean, from East Africa to west Australia.

Symbolized by the Buddhist-inspired Lotus Tower on the waterfront of picturesque Beira Lake in the commercial harbor city of Colombo, the globalizing Belt and Road Initiative is reviving the ancient glory of "trade-for-peace" to bring about a more harmonious and prosperous Asia-Pacific region. In this respect, Sri Lanka has never been an island; it has always been engaged in world affairs.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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