While current British foreign policy on Tibet includes pressing the Chinese Government on human rights abuses, overall Britain takes a soft approach due to considerations such as the future of Hong Kong and the strong desire for profitable trade with China. The British Government refuses to address the question of Tibet's status or to discuss the issue of Tibetan independence, claiming this is "not a realistic option"; an expedient approach based on realpolitik rather than one of principle or consistency.
The current British position on Tibet is described in a policy statement of January 1994, which begins: "Successive British Governments have consistently regarded Tibet as autonomous, although we recognise the special position of the Chinese there" ('Government Policy on Tibet', a Statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jan 1994). The statement continues: "Independence for Tibet is not a realistic option. Tibet has never been internationally recognised as an independent state, and no state regards Tibet as independent" ('Government Policy on Tibet').
In fact, Britain did officially regard Tibet as being de facto independent for much of the first half of the 20th century -from a Tibetan declaration of independence in 1912 until the Chinese invasion and occupation of 194950. British representatives were stationed in Tibet from 1904 to 1947 to liaise with the Tibetan Government.
The Government now believes there is a pressing need for dialogue without preconditions between the Chinese authorities and the Tibetan people. (To date, Beijing has argued that Tibetan independence is not open to discussion.) However, Britain has done little to encourage the Chinese to come to the negotiating table, beyond "reminding" them of the British position. Furthermore, pressing for talks without preconditions while at the same time declaring "independence is not a realistic option" is surely self-defeating.
The Government does not feel that the Dalai Lama has a political role, and his visits to Britain are held to have been purely of a "private and religious" nature. Moreover, the British authorities have declared they "have no formal dealings with the Dalai Lama's self proclaimed Government-in-Exile, which is not recognised by any government." (`Government Policy on Tibet').
Tibet Support Group UK believes that the current British position on Tibet not only contains contradictions which weaken the possible impact and effectiveness of British pressure, but also refutes and redefines the nature of Britain's historical relations with Tibet. TSG UK therefore recommends that the British Government:
Confirm its past recognition of Tibet as being a de facto independent state.
Agree that it is for the Tibetan people to decide whether or not independence for Tibet is a "realistic option".
Begin formal and open relations with the democratically elected Tibetan Government-in-Exile.
When the British ruled India, their interest in Tibet was to exclude the influence of any other state that might disturb India's Himalayan frontier, while becoming involved in Tibet as little as possible themselves. The ways of pursuing these objectives varied at different times.
In the 19th century, Britain accepted the myth that Tibet was in a vague way part of the Chinese Empire, since this might help to exclude Russian influence. The Tibetans also used the myth to help them exclude influences from India that might threaten their culture and perhaps their integrity. In fact, China's influence in Tibet, which for a short time at the end of the 18th century was effective, vanished during the 19th century. In the 1880s and 1890s, British attempts to settle minor issues of trade and frontier alignment by treaties with China proved infructous, because the Tibetans would not recognise these treaties. Lord Curzon, as Viceroy of India, therefore tried to establish direct contact with the 13th Dalai Lama, who most unwisely refused to receive his correspondence. This deadlock became serious when Curzon believed unreliable information suggesting that Russia had obtained some influence in Lhasa. So the British Government reluctantly approved a small military expedition under Francis Younghusband, which fought its way to Lhasa in 1904.
This inauspicious start in fact established good relations with Tibet, which were subsequently maintained. The Lhasa Convention of 1904 settled many outstanding issues. But a new Liberal Government in London went full circle in 1906, influenced partly by dislike of Curzon's imperialism and partly by moves then afoot, prompted by fear of Germany, for the formation of an entente between France, Britain and Russia. The Lhasa Convention was re-negotiated with China in 1906, and in 1907 an Anglo-Russian agreement, covering Persia and Afghanistan as well as Tibet, provided that both parties would deal with Tibet only through China.
In the vacuum thus created, the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1906, and the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1910. The Chinese then started to infiltrate into Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the tribal areas to the north of Assam. This set alarm bells ringing in Simla and London: what seemed to be needed was a buffer state against China as well as Russia. This was achieved when the Chinese emperor was deposed in 1911, thus breaking the personal link between the Dalai Lama and the Manchu Dynasty; when the Chinese troops in Tibet mutinied and were evacuated through India; and when the Dalai Lama, back in Lhasa, declared Tibet's independence in 1912.
At a conference in Simla in 1914, British, Chinese and Tibetan representatives negotiated the Simla Convention, providing for Tibetan autonomy with Chinese suzerainty, and a complicated and unsatisfactory arrangement about the Sino-Tibetan boundary. The Chinese withheld acceptance of this convention. They were accordingly told that Britain and Tibet would regard it as binding between themselves but that China would have no rights under it. In addition, agreements were concluded at Simla between Britain and Tibet (the Chinese being neither consulted nor informed) on trade and a definition of the frontier between India and Tibet in the tribal territory to the north of Assam (the MacMahon Line).
These arrangements were in breach of the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907, and a release to cover them was sought from Russia. This difficulty disappeared when, in 1917, the Communist Government in Russia repudiated all the international engagements of the tsars, and when, in 1921, the 1907 Treaty was cancelled by agreement.
From 1910 onwards, the British Government treated Tibet as a de facto independent state with which treaty relations existed. From 1921 onwards, they were periodically represented by a diplomatic officer at Lhasa, and were permanently so represented from the early-1930s. In 1920, after a futile attempt to settle Tibetan issues with China, Curzon, then Foreign Secretary, told the Chinese Government that since 1912 Britain had treated Tibet as de facto independent, and would continue to do so. Britain was, however, ready to recognise China's suzerainty over Tibet, provided that China accepted Tibet's autonomy. This the Chinese never did, and so the offer to recognise China's suzerainty remained contingent. Nor did the British regard the concept of suzerainty as limiting Tibet's ability to conduct her own external relations, or as more
than a sop for saving China's face. The Tibetans never accepted the idea of suzerainty after China rejected the Simla Convention.
In 1943, the Chinese foreign minister asked Anthony Eden how Britain regarded the status of Tibet, and was given an answer similar to Curzon's statement of 1921: that the British Government "had always been prepared to recognise Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, but only on the understanding that Tibet is regarded as autonomous" (Memorandum from Sir Anthony Eden to the Chinese foreign minister, T.V. Soong, 05/08/43, FO371/93001).
In the same year, the British Embassy in Washington wrote to the US Government, stating: "The Government of India has always held that Tibet is a separate country in the full enjoyment of local autonomy, entitled to exchange diplomatic representatives with other powers. The relationship between Tibet and China is not a matter that can be decided unilaterally by China, but one on which Tibet is entitled to negotiate, and on which she can, if necessary, count on the diplomatic support of the British Government along the lines shown above."
With the transfer of power to the two new dominions of India and Pakistan, Britain's direct political concern with Tibet ended, along with the cessation of her responsibility for the defence of India. One might, however, expect any British Government to be concerned on general historical grounds at China's military seizure of Tibet in 1950, and her brutal treatment of the Tibetan people for four decades.
' Note: Written by Sir Algemon Rumbold, President of the Tibet Society of the UK 1977- 1988, for TSG UK.
All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 194:9. Here the term Tibet is used to refer to the three original provinces of U'Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U'Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965). In 1949 the other two provinces, Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.