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May 21, 2008

Wikipedia: Foreign relations of Tibet

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The Foreign relations of Tibet proceed in the first instance from the agreements which China, Russia, India and the United Kingdom entered into regarding Tibet’s status. Later the United States and the United Nations were to play a role as they reacted to the assertion of sovereignty by the People’s Republic of China beginning in 1950. Nepal and the other small independent or semi-independent countries in the Indian-Tibetan border region play a minor role as does Mongolia.


Early history

Little is known of Tibet before the 7th century when Buddhism was introduced by missionaries from India. Tibet was a strong empire between the 8th and 10th centuries.

Relations with Tang dynasty of China

There was a stone pillar, the Lhasa Zhol rdo-rings, in the ancient village of Zhol in front of the Potala in Lhasa, dating to c. 764 CE during the reign of Trisong Detsen. It also contains an account of the brief capture of Chang’an, the Chinese capital, in 763 CE during the reign of Emperor Daizong of Tang.[1] In 1993 the pillar had been surrounded by buildings and wire so it could not be approached closely.

Lhasa Zhol Rdo-rings pillar 1993

Lhasa Zhol Rdo-rings pillar 1993

A stone monument dating to 823 and setting out the terms of peace and borders between Tibet and China arrived at in 821 can still be seen in front of the Jokhang temple in Barkhor Square in Lhasa. The monument, a treaty of friendship, is written in both Tibetan and Chinese and is somewhat difficult to interpret. The relations between the two countries appears to have been complex. On the one hand, the monument describes connections between China and Tibet as similar to those between uncle and nephew. The Tang dynasty of China and the Yarlung dynasty of Tibet were indeed related by marriage, yet the terms uncle and nephew are not used in relation to other groups with whom the Chinese had connections by marriage. On the other hand, the monument seems to describe the two countries as equals. The text has been published several times.[2][3][4]

Mongol conquest

After the Mongol Prince Köden took control of the Kokonor region in 1239, in order to investigate the possibility of attacking Song China from the West, he sent his general Doorda Darqan on a reconnaissance mission into Tibet in 1240. During this expedition the Kadampa (Bka’-gdams) monasteries of Rwa-sgreng and Rgyal-lha-khang were burned, and 500 people killed. The death of Ögödei the Mongol Khan in 1241 brought Mongol military activity around the world ground, temporarily, to a halt. Mongol interests in Tibet resumed in 1244 when Prince Köden sent an invitation to Sa-skya Paṇḍita (1182-1251) to come to his capital and formally surrender Tibet to the Mongols. Sa-skya Paṇḍita arrived in Kokonor with his two nephews ‘Phags-pa (1235-80) and Phyag-na Rdo-rje (1239-67) in 1246.

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan

After an internecine feud among the Mongol princes Quibilai was appointed by Möngke Khan to take charge over the Chinese campaigns in 1253. Since Sa-skya Paṇḍita had already died Qubilai took ‘Phags-pa into his camp as a symbol of Tibet’s surrender. Qubilai was elected Qaɣan in 1260 following the death of his brother Möngke, although his ascendance was not uncontested. At that point he named ‘Phags-pa as ‘state preceptor’ Guo-shi. In 1265 ‘Phags-pa returned to Tibet and for the first time made an attempt to impose Sa-skya hegemony with the appointment of Shakya Bzang-po (a long time servant and ally of the Sa-skyas) as the Dpon-chen ‘great administrator’ over Tibet in 1267. A census was conducted in 1268 and Tibet was divided into 13 myriarchies.

In 1269 ‘Phags-pa returned to Kublai’s side at his new capital Qanbaliq (modern day Beijing). He presented the Qaɣan with a new script designed to represent all of the languages of the empire. The next year he was named Di-shi ‘imperial preceptor’, and his position as titular ruler of Tibet (now in the form of its 13 myriarchies) was reconfirmed. The Sa-skya hegemony over Tibet continued into the middle of the 14th century, although it was challenged by a revolt of the ‘Bri-khung sect with the assistance of Hülegü of the Ilkhanate in 1285. The revolt was suppressed in 1290 when the Sa-skyas and eastern Mongols burned ‘Bri-khung and killed 10,000 people (cf. Wylie 1977).

Qing dynasty control

By the early 18th century the Qing government of China established the right to have resident commissioners, called Ambans, in Lhasa. When the Tibetans rebelled against the Chinese in 1750 and killed the Ambans, a Chinese army entered the country to restore Chinese authority. In the Chinese view, the Tibetans once again acknowledged themselves as subjects of the Empire of China and new Ambans were installed. However, China did not make any attempt to impose direct rule on Tibet and the Tibetan government around the Dalai Lama continued to manage its day to day affairs, thus in their own view remaining independent.[citation needed]

The 1904 British Invasion of Tibet

In 1904 A British diplomatic mission, accompanied by a large military escort, forced its way through to Lhasa. [1] The head of the diplomatic mission was Colonel Francis Younghusband. The principal motivation for the British mission was a fear, which proved to be unfounded, that Russia was extending its footprint into Tibet and possibly even giving military aid to the Tibetan government. When the mission reached Lhasa, the Dalai Lama had already fled to Urga in Mongolia, but a treaty was signed by lay and ecclesasiastical officials of the Tibetan government, and by representatives of the three monasteries of Sera, Drepung, and Ganden. (Bell, 1924 p. 284; Allen, 2004, p. 282). The treaty made provisions for the frontier between Sikkim and Tibet to be respected, for freer trade between British and Tibetan subjects, and for an indemnity to be paid from the Tibetan Government to the British Government for its expenses in dispatching armed troops to Lhasa. It also made provision for a British trade agent to reside at the trade mart at Gyantse. The provisions of this 1904 treaty were confirmed in a 1906 treaty signed between Britain and China, in which the British also agreed “not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet.” (Bell, 1924, p. 288). The position of British Trade Agent at Gyantse was occupied from 1904 up until 1944. It was not until 1937, with the creation of the position of “Head of British Mission Lhasa”, that a British officer had a permanent posting in Lhasa itself. (McKay, 1997, p. 230-1).

Early 20th century events

In 1907, a treaty between Britain and Russia recognized Chinese suzerainty over Tibet and agreed not to negotiate with Tibet except through the intermediary of the Chinese government. [2] The Chinese established direct rule for the first time in 1910. But when the 1911 Xinhai Revolution ended the Qing Dynasty the Chinese troops withdrew, and the Dalai Lama was able to re-establish his power. In 1913, Tibet and Mongolia signed a treaty proclaiming their independence from China, and their mutual recognition. The subsequent outbreak of world wars and civil war in China caused both the powers and China to lose interest in Tibet, and the 13th Dalai Lama ruled undisturbed. In 1914 a treaty was negotiated in India, the Simla Convention, representatives of China, Tibet and Britain participated. Again, Chinese suzerainty over Tibet was recognized and a boundary negotiated between British India and Tibet which was very generous to Britain. The treaty was never signed by the Chinese and thus never came into force. The Chinese raised a number of objections, especially their refusal to recognize any treaty between Tibet and Britain.

China’s assertion of sovereignty

Neither the Nationalist government of the Republic of China nor the People’s Republic of China have ever renounced China’s claim to sovereignty over Tibet. The PRC ascribes Tibetan efforts to establish independence as due to the machinations of “British imperialism” [3]. According to the Chinese, the Tibetan cabinet, the Kashag, set up a “bureau of foreign affairs” in July, 1942 and demanded that the Chinese mission in Lhasa, the Office of the Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs, deal only with it. The Chinese successfully withstood this.

In 1950 the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet, meeting little resistance from the small and ill-equipped Tibetan army. In 1951 the 17 Point Agreement, Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, signed under threat of a wholesale Chinese invasion by representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, provided for rule by a joint Chinese-Tibetan authority. This agreement was successfully put into effect in Tibet proper but in June, 1956, rebellion broke out in the Tibetan populated borderlands of Amdo and Kham when the government tried to impose the socialist transformation policies in these regions that they had in provinces in China proper. Since Amdo and Kham had not been under the control of the Dalai Lama regime in 1950 but under the control of Chinese warlords, they were not considered by the Chinese to be part of Tibet and thus not subject to the “go slow” agreement. This unrest provided the opportunity for the CIA to support an armed Tibetan rebellion which eventually spread to Lhasa. The rebellion was crushed by 1959 and the Dalai Lama fled in disguise to India. Isolated actions continued until 1969. The Panchen Lama was set up as a figurehead in Lhasa while the Dalai Lama eventually created a Government of Tibet in Exile.

Wartime relations with the United States

The first United States mission to Tibet, in 1942, a reconnaissance mission sent by the OSS to scout out a possible route to southern China during World War II was headed by Captain Ilya Tolstoy, a grandson of the novelist. He was accompanied by Lieutenant Brooke Dolan II who had previously engaged in extensive naturalistic explorations in Tibet. In Lhasa they were granted an audience with the Dalai Lama, then only 7 years old. A letter from Franklin Roosevelt was delivered which was carefully phrased as being addressed to the Dalai Lama as a religious leader but not as the ruler of Tibet. Gifts were given to the Dalai Lama and gifts were received from the Tibetan cabinet, the Kashag. Tolstoy remained for three months but did not attempt to raise the question of transshipment of supplies to China as he could see the unfavorable attitude of the Tibetans. In early 1943 Tolstoy continued into China arriving at Lanzhou in June, 1943. The Tibetans were a neutral nation during the war, while China was not. This tends to show that Tibet was autonomous at that time.

The notion of building a road or attempting to supply China through Tibet was forsaken but as a result of the relations which were established a wool import quota was granted to Padatsang, a Tibetan merchant from Kham who had aided the mission, and promised radio equipment was delivered to Lhasa, 3 transmitters and 6 receivers. While in Tibet Tolstoy and the British resident had raised the possibility that Tibet might participate in post-war conferences. This never came to fruition as both Britain and the United States, in consideration of their relations with China, continued to take the position that Tibet was not a sovereign country.

The subject of Tibet arose briefly in international affairs in 1942-43 as a result efforts by the U.S. to fly aid to China over the Himalayas following the closure of the Burma Road. An America plane crashed in Tibet and its five crew members were escorted back to India. The U.S. sent a mission to Lhasa led by Captain Ilia Tolstoy (a grandson of the novelist) to study the possibility of an air supply route crossing Tibetan territory. Although the project was not pushed any further, it created a need to clarify Tibet’s status in international law. In 1942, US State Department formally notified the Chinese government based in wartime capital Chungking (Chongqing) that it had at no time raised any doubt about the Chinese sovereignty claim over Tibet. In 1995, US State Department reiterated its position during the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

“The United States considers the Tibet Autonomous Region or TAR (hereinafter referred to as “Tibet”) as part of the People’s Republic of China. This longstanding policy is consistent with the view of the entire international community, including all China’s neighbors: no country recognizes Tibet as a sovereign state. Moreover, U.S. acceptance of China’s claim of sovereignty over Tibet predates the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In 1942, we told the Nationalist Chinese government then headquartered in Chongqing (Chungking) that we had “at no time raised (a) question” over Chinese claims to Tibet.” [5]

British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden accordingly wrote a note presented to the Chinese government which describes Tibet as, “an autonomous State under the suzerainty of China” that “enjoyed de facto independence.”[6] Meanwhile, the British embassy in Washington told the U.S. State Department that, “Tibet is a separate country in full enjoyment of local autonomy, entitled to exchange diplomatic representatives with other powers.”[7] Although London repeatedly asked the United States for assistance, the U.S. State Department refuted London’s claim:

“For its part, the Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese Government has long claimed suzerainty over Tibet and that the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims.”[8]

The trade delegation of 1947

In 1947 the Tibetan foreign office began planning a trade delegation to visit India, China, the United States and Britain. Initial overtures were made to the US embassy in India requesting meetings with President Truman and other US officials to discuss trade. This request was forwarded to Washington, but the State Department proved willing only to meet with the Tibetans on an informal basis. The delegation consisted of 4 persons, Tsipon Shakabpa, Tibet’s chief financial officer, Padatsang, and two others including a monk.

Armed with the first Tibetan passports, the delegation went first to New Delhi, meeting with Prime Minister Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Most foreign trade from Tibet passed through India, and it was the practice of the Indian government to convert any foreign currencies received into rupees before payment to Tibet. The Tibetans were unable to negotiate any change in this practice, which would have put hard currency into their hands. One of the goals of the trade delegation was to obtain gold or other solid backing for Tibetan currency.

It was the Chinese position that a Chinese passport was required for entry into China. These were issued, and the delegation entered China at Hong Kong, using them and spent 3 months in China. For the next leg of the journey to the United States and Britain, the Chinese took the position that they would only issue exit visas on the Chinese passports. However the Tibets managed to get a British consular officer in Nanking to issue a British visa on their Tibetan passports, and, again, a US officer in Hong Kong, thus defeating the efforts of the US State Department and the British Foreign Office to deny use of the Tibetan passports, a small victory for the supposedly unsophisticated Tibetans.

The delegation arrived in San Francisco in July, 1948 where they were met by the British Consul. They traveled by train to Washington where, despite strong objections by the Chinese and reassurance that the United States recognized China’s de jure sovereignty over Tibet, the Tibetans were received by the Secretary of State, George Marshall. There was some language in the State Department’s negotiations with the Chinese which noted that they exerted no de facto control over Tibet and noted the traditional American principle of favoring self-determination, but no more definite statement was made regarding Tibetan sovereignty.

They requested aid from the United States in convincing India to free up their hard currency earning and also for permission to purchase gold from the United States for a currency reserve. They received no help on their problem with India but were given permission to purchase up to 50,000 ounces of gold.

Not meeting with President Truman, they proceeded to New York where they were greeted by their old friend, Ilya Tolstoy, who introduced them around. They met with Lowell Thomas, who was interested in visiting Tibet, and Dwight Eisenhower, then president of Columbia University, and other eastern establishment personalities as well as Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark who had an interest in Tibet.

In November the delegation set sail for Britain where they spent 3 weeks but were received coolly. Returning through India they were able to free up some foreign exchange for the purchase of gold and, adding money of their own, effected a purchase of $425,800 in gold which was transported to Tibet by pack animals.

Being received more warmly in the United States than in Britain, with whom they had a long established relationship, set the stage for later expansion of the relationship with the United States as they attempted to deal with later Chinese efforts to reassert effective control.

Further reading

  • Grunfeld, Tom. “The Making of Modern Tibet”, 1996, hardcover, 352 pages, ISBN 1-56324-713-5
  • Hale, Christopher. 2003. Himmler’s Crusade: The true story of the 1938 Nazi expedition into Tibet. Transworld Publishers. London. ISBN 0-593-04952-7
  • Knaus, John Kenneth. Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival, Perseus, 1999, hardcover, 398 pages, ISBN 1-891620-18-5; trade paperback, Perseus, 2000, ISBN 1-891620-85-1.
  • Kolmaš, Josef. 1967. Tibet and Imperial China: A survey of Sino-Tibetan relations up to the end of the Manchu Dynasty in 1912. Occasional Paper 7. The Australian National University – Centre of Oriental Studies, Canberra.
  • Morrison, James and Conboy, Kenneth, The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet, University Press of Kansas, March, 2002, hardcover, 301 pages, ISBN 0-7006-1159-2
  • Rahder, Karl. “The Tibetan Claim to Statehood,” Issues & Studies, vol. 38, no. 10 (October 1993).
  • Shaumian, Tatiana. Tibet : The Great Game and Tsarist Russia, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000, hardcover, 223 pages, ISBN 0-19-565056-5
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