Crossroads Asia | Central Asia

Could Russia’s Buddhist Republics Complicate Relations With China?

Religious diplomacy might be a sophisticated Kremlin foreign policy tactic, but it will never trump basic Russian foreign policy needs. 

Could Russia’s Buddhist Republics Complicate Relations With China?
Credit: Ada Tyulush / Wikimedia Commons

The Russian Federation is an authentically multiconfessional society, as opposed to the West’s imported multiculturalism and militant secularism – or so goes the story promoted by the Russian state around the world. Part of the Kremlin’s broader, sophisticated religious diplomacy efforts, these narratives draw upon all four of Russia’s “official” religions: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. 

But, as ever, diversity can be a source of both strength and weakness. The Russian government’s uses of, and relations with, its Buddhist republics reveal the limitations of its religious diplomacy, especially in the context of the developing China-Russia partnership.

There are three Buddhist-majority republics in Russia: Kalmykia in the North Caucasus, plus Tuva and Buryatia in Siberia. Despite top-down efforts at centralization over the last two decades, these republics still exercise a degree of control over their own affairs, including conducting low-level diplomacy. 

Most Russian Buddhists practice the Tibetan form of the religion and see the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader, a stance reflected in the Buddhist republics’ diplomatic outreach efforts. For example, after hosting Arjia Rinpoche – one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most senior spiritual teachers – in 2019, last year the then-head of Tuva, Sholban Kara-ool, held an online meeting with the Dalai Lama. This year, Tuva hosted delegates from the (Tibetan Buddhist) Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace.

This engagement could potentially cause tension with China, which is steadfast in its opposition to Tibetan autonomy. The Chinese government has applied anti-religious policies against the Tibetan Buddhist community since its absorption of the territory in 1950, reflected in the Dalai Lama’s exile since 1959. Recently, local authorities in China’s Sichuan province banned photographs of the Dalai Lama, whom they see as a separatist. 

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Against this backdrop, Russia is increasingly dependent on the Chinese relationship, with trade between the two nations rising dramatically even during 2020. As a global superpower, China is well-positioned to demand political concessions in areas it perceives to be sensitive for its own national security. The Kremlin has already bowed to this (as yet inferred rather than articulated) pressure, by barring the Dalai Lama from visiting Russia’s Buddhist areas, despite pleas from regional officials to rescind this prohibition

Given the increasing power imbalance between Russia and China, it is conceivable that Beijing could signal its discontent over the types of meetings held by Kara-ool in 2020 or over Tibetan monks traveling to Russia to teach and worship. After all, both of these activities arguably legitimize the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government in exile. Even if it is not expressed openly, the Kremlin is likely to feel invisible pressure not to rile their Chinese partners.

Such sensitivity is partly a valuable token of Russia’s respect for its neighbor, but unless handled carefully it could also provoke anger internally. Given their experiences of oppression at the hands of the Soviet state, the Buddhist peoples of Russia could well see infringements on their faith as a bleak portent. Furthermore, sectarian discontent within these regions would give the lie to the Kremlin’s self-narrative as a multiconfessional state. 

On the other hand, ignoring Chinese sensitivities could complicate a useful diplomatic relationship for the Kremlin. In trade, natural resources, and strategic positioning, both China and Russia see each other as key partners in an emerging multipolar world. Since 2014, Western sanctions have isolated Russia from the European Union and United States, a tendency that shows little signs of ebbing. In this context, Russia’s pivot eastward becomes crucial to the country’s economic development and maintenance of international status. 

These considerations, combined with China’s sheer economic power and strategic positioning, leave Russia very much the junior partner. Given this position, plus the precedent of rejecting Dalai Lama visits, it is likely that Russia will continue to be careful in managing the demands and needs of its Buddhist republics, prioritizing Chinese sensitivities over the former’s freedom of religion. Any decision to do so will be made easier by China’s outward respect for Russian sovereignty and Beijing’s delicate handling of the turnaround in great power fortunes between the two nations. As such, provided Russia is cautious, China is unlikely to demand or even openly request concessions, instead making any such requests implicitly. 

While evidence of the subtle strength and mutual understanding underpinning Russia and China’s growing relationship, this complicated balance of forces also underscores the emptiness of Russia’s religious diplomacy narratives. Rather than a bastion of multiconfessionality in which freedom of religious belief is protected, we see a country ready to sacrifice the rights of Buddhist believers on the altar of smooth relations with an atheist foreign power. In other words: religious diplomacy might be a sophisticated Kremlin foreign policy tactic, but it will never trump basic Russian foreign policy needs.