A Brief Summary of the Status of Tibet
The history of Sino-Tibetan relations commenced at the beginning of the Seventh Century when the King of Tibet Song Tsen Gampo, annexed Eastern China and compelled the Chinese Emperor to sue for peace and to give in marriage one of the royal princesses. This period was characterised by relations on a footing of equality and reciprocity. The treaty concluded at the beginning of the following Century, inscribed on a stone pillar in front of Central Cathedral of Lhasa, bears witness to this relationship. Another historical pillar at the foot of the PotalaPalace of the Dali Lama describes in detail the conquests of the Tibetan armies in Western China during the second half of the Eighth Century.
In 1652, the Fifth Dalai Lama visited Peking. He went as an independent sovereign to visit the Manchu Emperor and as a result of this visit, a relation of priest and disciple sprang-up. And in 1720, two Chinese Ambans or diplomatic representatives were allowed to stay in Lhasa. The Chinese sources have sought to interpret the fact that the two Ambans had been stationed in Lhasa as an emblem of Chinese authority over Tibet. But, Desideri, who lived in Lhasa for five years from 1716, thus describes the situation: “The Grand Lama of Tibet….is recognised and revered not only by the Tibetans of the second and third Tibet, but also by the Nepalese, the Tartars and the Chinese; he is worshipped and offerings are made to him….he reigns over the religious and temporal affairs, because he is absolute master of the whole of Tibet……The Emperors of China have demonstrated their profound respect for him….often they have sent ambassadors with presents.”
The opinion expressed by Huc and Gabet, two Lazarist missionaries who were in Lhasa in 1846, lends support to this interpretation of the relation between the Emperors of China and the Dalai Lama. According to these missionaries, the Government of Tibet resembles that of the Vatican and the position occupied by the Chinese ambassadors was the same as that of the Austrian Ambassador in Rome.
The Chinese are adept at pretending that the slightest connection with any foreign power makes such foreign power a vassal of the Chinese. It is well known that when Queen Victoria of England and the Pope sent ambassadors to China, the Chinese Emperor thanked the ambassadors for the presents sent by his vassals. It is possible that when the British power was established in India, the Chinese made the British believe that Tibet was a part of China and the presence of the Ambans may have made them believe that such was the case. In 1876, the British entered into treaty with the Chinese whereby the Chinese Government agreed to make the necessary arrangements for a British Mission of Exploration to visit Tibet. Tibet, however, refused to recognise this treaty and in 1886, the projected mission to Tibet was abandoned by the British. However, Britain continued to deal with China.
Shortly after the abandonment of 1886 Mission, Tibetan troops erected a fortress across the trade road, which the British regarded as inside the border of Sikkim, a British protectorate. The British protested to the Chinese but in vain and ultimately in May 1888, the Tibetan force retreated before a superior British military force. Inspite of this, the British continued to hug the illusion of Chinese authority over Tibet and in 1890 entered into a treaty with China, inter-alia, demarcating the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet and recognizing British authority over Sikkim. This treaty also had provisions for trade between India and Tibet and in 1893 a further convention called the Tibet Trade agreement was signed. When Tibet refused to recognise either of these, the British protested to the Chinese, but the latter were in no position to do anything about it. Ultimately, in 1903 the British sent a military expedition into Tibet, which, after defeating the small Tibetan army, signed the Lhasa Convention in 1904. The parties to this Convention were the British Government and the Government of Tibet. Article IX of the Convention reads:
“IX. The Government of Tibet engages that, without the previous consent of the British Government-
(a) no portion of the Tibetan territory shall be ceded, sold, leased, mortgaged or otherwise given for occupation, to any foreign power;
(b) no such power shall be permitted to intervene in Tibetan affairs;
(c) no representative or agents of any foreign power shall be admitted to Tibet;
(d) no concessions for railways, roads, telegraphs, mining, or other rights shall granted to any foreign power, or the subject of any foreign power. In the event of consent to such concessions shall be granted to the British Government;
(e) no Tibetan revenues, whether in kind or in cash, shall be pledged or assigned to any foreign power, or to the subject of any foreign power.”
It may be noted that in Article IX more than once the words “foreign power” have been employed. The use of these words clearly shows that China, among others, was treated as a foreign power.
It may also be noted that the Chinese Amban was in Lhasa, but not a word of protest came from him or the Chinese Government for violating what they claimed to be, part of their territory. On the contrary, China accepted the provisions of the Convention under the Peking Convention of 1906.
Describing the Chinese claim of suzerainty over Tibet, Lord Curzon the then Viceroy of India in 1903 said:
“Chinese suzerainty over Tibet is constitutional fiction- a political affection which has only maintained because of its convenience to both parties.”
In 1906, the British threw a small crumb out of the concessions they had got from Tibet in 1904. The Preamble makes very interesting reading.
“And whereas the refusal of Tibet to recognise the validity of or to carry into full effect the provisions of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of March 17, 1890 and Regulations of December 5,
1893, placed the British Government under the necessity of taking steps to secure their rights and interest under the said Convention and Regulations”.
Articles I then goes on to confirm the Convent ion of 1904. By Article II, Great Britain engages not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet and the Government of China undertakes not to permit any other foreign State to interfere with the territory or internal administration of Tibet.
Then follows Article III: “The Concessions which are mentioned in Article IX (d) of the Convention concluded on September 7, 1904 by Great Britain and Tibet are denied to any state or to the subjects of any State other than China, but it has been arranged with China that at the trade marks specified in Article II of the aforesaid Convention Great Britain shall be entitled to lay down telegraph lines connecting with India.”
The preamble to this Convention as quoted above shows that the Chinese Government was not objecting to the British invasion of 1904 but accepted it without demur.
It may be mentioned that not only Britain but Russia was hoping to establish some kind of influence in Tibet. In order to allay the suspicion, which might have been aroused by the Lhasa Convention of 1904 in the minds of the Russians, Britain and Russia signed a Convention in 1907. The high Contracting Parties say that both of them would engage themselves to respect the territorial integrity of Tibet and to abstain from any interference in its internal administration. They also recognised the suzerainty of China over Tibet and agreed not to deal with Tibet excepting through the Government of China.
It may be mentioned that this Convention had similar clauses regarding Afghanistan and Persia, both as independent as Tibet. Neither Afghanistan nor Persia, nor Tibet was a party of this Convention, not even the Chinese. This convention is an example of European diplomacy of the time when the big powers, behind the backs of those concerned, tried to carve out spheres of influence.
It is probably on this Convention that the Chinese claim for suzerainty rests.
This is the only document on which the Chinese right to suzerainty has been mentioned.
In 1908 Britain and China entered into a Tibet Trade Regulation which was a consequence of the 1906 Agreement.
The Chinese then realized that the British were only interested in trade and that if they attempted to conquer Tibet by force, the British would not intervene. Thus, for the first time, an expedition of conquest was launched in 1910. But in 1911, the Manchu Emperors were overthrown and the 1911 Chinese Revolution began. The Tibetans besieged the Amban and the few Chinese troops in Tibet and expelled them from Tibet.
And in 1912 the Dalai Lama issued a proclamation of Tibetan independence.
It should be noted in this connection that Bulgaria which was under the suzerainty of the Turkish Empire, made a similar declaration in 1908 denouncing the Turkish rights of suzerainty. Although Turkish suzerainty was accepted by the concert of Europe under the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, nevertheless, the unilateral declaration made by Bulgaria was accepted by the community of nations. The declaration made by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was similar in character and had the same effect in the eyes of international law even on the assumption that the Chinese had some vague and undefined authority over Tibet.
Although Lord Curzon had, in 1903, said that Chinese suzerainty over Tibet is a constitutional fiction, the British for reasons of their own, mainly for securing peace on their northern frontier, wanted to keep up this fiction, if possible. Although Tibet had declared complete independence, there was the question of boundary between Tibet and China which in the past had been a source of armed conflict between Tibet and China.
In 1913 the British invited the Plenipotentiaries of Tibet and China at a tripartite conference. The British were hoping that if the Tibetans were willing to accept nominal suzerainty of China over Tibet, the Chinese may be induced to settle the question of frontiers between themselves and Tibet. In April 1914, a draft Convention was initialled by all the parties, Tibet agreeing to a nominal suzerainty and the Chinese agreeing to the frontiers as desired by Tibet. However, the Chinese Government repudiated the agreement and finally it was signed by Tibet and Britain, with the following declaration:
"We, the Plenipotentiaries of Great Britain and Tibet, hereby record the following declaration to the effect that we acknowledge the annexed Convention as initialled to be binding on the Government of Great Britain and Tibet, and we agree that so long as the Government of China withholds signature to the aforesaid Convention she will be debarred from the enjoyment of all privileges accruing therefrom.
“In token whereof we have signed and sealed the declaration, two copies in English and two in Tibetan.
“Done at Simla this 3rd day of July A.D 1914 corresponding with the Tibetan date the 10th day of the 5th month of the Wood-Tiger year”.
The refusal of China to sign the Simla convention reverted the position of China vis-a –vis Tibet back to the position of 1912, when the Thirteenth Dali Lama proclaimed the independence of Tibet.
It may be noted that by this Treaty, the agreement with the Chinese in 1906 as well as the Tibet Trade Agreement of 1908 were abrogated. It must also be remembered that by this convention the boundaries between Tibet and British India and Burma were agreed upon by accepting what is known as the McMahon line as the frontier. This agreement was between Tibet and India although the Chinese delegate was kept informed and he initialed the relevant map. The Chinese refusal to endorse the agreement arrived at by their delegate was based entirely on the demarcation of the boundary between Tibet and China.
This was the second treaty between Tibet and Britain. Even earlier, Tibet had signed a treaty with Nepal in 1856. In 1917 there was a war between china and Tibet, in which China suffered a crushing defeat. In 1928, the Government of China invited Tibet to join the Chinese republic. This invitation was ignored and in 1931, china unilaterally declared Tibet to be province of China. Soon hostilities occurred in 1931 and 1932, when the Chinese tried to assert their authority over some territories in Eastern Tibet. In this they failed. In 1936 on the Long March, the Communists tried to pass through Tibetan territory and they were thrown out.
During the Second World War when China was an ally of Britain and the United States, President Roosevelt, sent personal representatives to the Dalai Lama with request that the war materials may be allowed to pass through Tibet to china, Tibet did not agree to this but agreed to permit the transit of such goods as were not war material.
In 1947 when Mr. Nehru convened an Asian Conference, representatives of Tibet attended and the flag of Tibet was flown on that occasion. The Tibetan delegation later went to various countries including Britain and the United States on Tibetan passports.
Thus from 1911 till 1949 when the communist Chinese invaded Tibet, there was not even a vestige of Chinese authority in Tibet. And on the eve of the Chinese invasion of 1950 Tibet was a completely independent state satisfying all the four basic requirements of statehood, viz. there must be a people, a territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states of the world.
This fact is amply evidenced by contemporary observers in Tibet itself. On the earlier period, Sir Charles Bell and Sir Eric Teichmann speak with authority. In Affairs of China (1938) Sir Eric Teichmann wrote: “Since (1912) no vestige of Chinese authority has survived or reappeared in Lhasa-ruled Tibet.” Tsung-lien and Shen-chi Liu recount that “Since 1911 Lhasa (meaning in the context Tibet) has to all practical purpose enjoyed full independence”’ Mr. A Ammaury de Riencourt was in Lhasa in 1947 and has stated, “Tibet ruled itself in all respects as as independent nation”. At the time he was there, “the Government’s writ ran everywhere. People were law abiding, peace and order reigned in Tibet”.
Further, Tibet had its own currency and customs, its own telegraph and postal service, and its own civil service different from that of China, and its own army. Mr. H. E. Richardson, who, as Officer-in charge of the British and later Indian Mission in Lhasa and also Trade Agent on Gyangtse, was resident in Tibet from 1936-40 and 1946-50, has stated that “until the Communist invasion of 1950 Tibet enjoyed full de facto independence from Chinese control”. Henreich Harrer and Robert Ford who were employed by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government respectively, report no Chinese authority in Tibet whilst they were there prior to the invasion.
The sovereign status during the period of 1912 to 1950 finds conclusive evidence in the fact that the Government of Tibet concluded as many as four international agreements immediately before and during these years. The first was the treaty of 1856 between Tibet and Nepal which bound the Government of Nepal to render assistance to the Government of Tibet in the even of invasion of Tibet by a foreign Power. The second treaty was signed between Mongolia and Tibet in 1913. This treaty recognized the independence and sovereignty of the two contracting States. The third was the Lhasa Convention of 1904 between the British Government and the Government of Tibet. This Convention expressly speaks of “the relations of friendship and good understanding which have existed between the British Government and the Government of Tibet”. This was indeed a clear recognition of the sovereign status of Tibet. Under this Convention, the Government of Tibet engaged that without previous consent of the British Government no foreign power would be permitted to intervene in Tibetan affairs, and that no representative of any foreign power would be admitted into Tibet. This provision was applicable to China as well as to other foreign powers. The fourth international treaty signed by Tibet is the Simla convention of 1914 between Britain and Tibet. The signing of this Convention, and simultaneous Anglo-Tibetan declaration meant not only that Tibet was conducting her own foreign relations but also that another State, viz. Great Britain was prepared to regard her as capable of incurring international obligations. Sitting around the conference table with a Tibetan plenipotentiary is in itself sufficient indication of this. The credentials of the Tibetan plenipotentiary “with the right to decide all matters that may be beneficial to Tibet” were accepted as in order by the Chinese plenipotentiary. The credentials of the British representative confirmed that all the three representatives were of equal status, and that the conference was meeting “to regulate the relations between the several governments.”
Further, during the Sino-Japanese war of 1936-43, Tibet observed strict neutrality. Normally a suzerain’s war is the war of the ‘vassal’ state. Such was not the case here.
Similarly during the World War II, the question arose of transporting war material to China through Tibet, notwithstanding the request of Britain and America to permit this, the Government of Tibet adamantly refused permission. The only goods permitted to be transported through the territory of Tibet were non-military goods. And on 7th August, 1942 the Head of the Far Eastern Department of the British Foreign Office wrote to the counselor of the American Embassy in London that:
“In fact the Tibetans not only claim to be, but actually are an independent people, and they have in recent years fought successfully to maintain their freedom against Chinese attempts at domination. Their distinct racial, political, religious and linguistic characteristics would seem to entitle them, therefore, to the benefit of …… the memorandum.”
In 1947, a few months before the independence of India, a Tibetan Delegation participated as representatives of an independent country at the Asia Conference held in New Delhi and at the Conference, the national flag of Tibet was flown. For years prior to 1950, whenever occasion arose, the Tibetan Government dealt directly with such countries. Even the mission, sent by the president of United States during the War with a personal message from President Roosevelt, dated July 3, 1942 referred to as the American Mission dealt with the Tibetan Foreign Ministry.
Mr. Richardson, who was Consul General representing the British Indian Government in Lhasa a few years prior to 1947 and 3 years after 1947 as representing the Indian Government, has clearly stated that the British and later the Indian Government were dealing directly with the Tibetan authorities.
In 1948, a Tibetan Trade Mission led by the Tibetan Finance Minister traveled with its passport issued by the Government of Tibet, which was accepted as a valid document by the Government of India, Pakistan, Iran, Great Britain, France, Switzerland and the united States etc. This is clear international recognition if such is needed of the independent status of Tibet.
A very striking evidence of Tibetan independence is given in July 1949, when the Tibetan Government asked the whole of the Chinese official Mission at Lhasa and some Chinese traders to leave Tibet.
A further point of some considerable importance is that Chinese mission to Lhasa usually preferred not to proceed overland from China, and were thus compelled to proceed via India and required a transit visa from the British authorities. Mr. Richardson informed the Legal Inquiry Committee on Tibet that such applications were granted or fused according to the wishes of the Tibetan Government.
The Legal Inquiry Committee on Tibet state in their report that the relations between Great Britain, India and Tibet from 1913 to 1950 lead to the conclusion that the practice of the two former countries was to dealt with Tibet as an independent state.
The foregoing facts clearly show that on the eve of the Chinese invasion of 1949, Tibet was in fact a completely independent State.