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Book Excerpt: Tibet, a paradise lost

The planet’s Third Pole was a mighty empire once; but its status in international relations is disputed today. How and why did this happen?

 
By Dilip Sinha
Published: Saturday 01 June 2024

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso. Photo: iStock

Tibet has fascinated the world for centuries due to its forbidding terrain and mystical remoteness. This towering highland to the north has traditionally served as India’s longest land frontier. Although Tibet was once an imperial power, the arrival of Buddhism ushered in a reclusive pacificism. The proliferation of monasteries made it vulnerable to foreign intervention, as the lamas were willing to seek outside assistance to settle internal disputes. The Mongols invaded Tibet in the thirteenth century, and the Manchus arrived in the eighteenth century. Both groups conquered China and ruled Tibet from Beijing. By the mid-nineteenth century, when our story begins, Manchu China had nominal control over Tibet.

Tibet’s status in international relations remains disputed. The critical question is whether it’s a separate country or a part of China. Most countries, including India, consider it an autonomous region of China. But autonomy does not imply independence. An autonomous region cannot claim to be a state under international law, nor does it count as a colony under foreign occupation.

In spite of these flexibilities, exceptions and divergent interpretations, the standards applied to Tibet’s claim to statehood have remained extremely stringent. Tibet is considered to have been under Chinese ‘suzerainty’ for an indeterminate period and thus lacking the necessary attributes of statehood. But the term suzerainty itself is not recognized in modern international law. It was popular in the nineteenth century, describing the emperors’ authority over their tributary states. The Ottomans, for example, were said to have suzerainty over the Balkan countries of Europe. India made anti-colonialism the central pillar of its foreign policy, standing up for the rights of countries against colonial powers. Yet, it did not deem China’s occupation of Tibet to be an act of colonization, instead toeing the British line.

The lamas, being monks, described their relationship with the Mongols and the Manchus in ecclesiastical terms — as a priest–patron connection. But such abstruse relationships receive no recognition in international politics. To assert its right to statehood, a state has to claim sovereignty and enter into diplomatic relations with other countries. As a result, theocratic Tibet was inconsistent in demanding recognition of its sovereignty and often unsure of its legitimacy.

Britain firmed up its Tibet policy early in the twentieth century, during the dying years of Manchu rule. Despite its best efforts, Britain could not persuade China to maintain control over this distant country. It juggled strategies to achieve a complex set of goals, including preventing the disintegration of the Manchu empire, blocking the southward march of Russia and opening up trade within the reclusive Tibet. Finally, it settled on the imperial construct of ‘suzerainty’ to define Tibet’s relationship with China, while conducting dealings directly with it.

After India gained independence, it faced an irredentist China that was no longer content with stationing a ceremonial representative in Lhasa. The Tibetan government was supplanted by Han Chinese functionaries of the Communist Party serving as administrators. China also laid claim to extensive Indian territory bordering Tibet, which was inhabited by Buddhist people who revered the Dalai Lama. This contrasted its own policy of annexing large parts of Tibet and denying the Dalai Lama traditional monastic privileges in China.

Although independent India retained the British policy, while Britain had extracted several trading rights in Tibet and enforced them using its army, India’s military weakness and lack of political will soon resulted in the loss of those rights. The newly independent nation also inherited borders that were vaguely demarcated or agreed upon by the three imperial powers. With Britain no longer interested in the region and Russia offering unstinting support to its fellow communist nation, India faced a formidable challenge. Communist China condemned Western imperialism but claimed the Manchu mantle and aggressively pursued shadowy claims over neighbouring countries under the guise of liberating their oppressed people.

In his seminal history of humankind, Yuval Noah Harari offers a perceptive insight into China: ‘The ultimate achievement of the Chinese empire is that it is still alive and kicking, yet it is hard to see it as an empire except in outlying areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang.’ Harari only includes Tibet and Xinjiang as colonies of the Chinese empire, leaving out autonomous regions like Inner Mongolia and Yunnan. This omission is likely because the immigration of the Han Chinese has changed the demographics of Inner Mongolia, Yunnan and the three provinces of the erstwhile Manchuria. The same fate awaits Tibet and Xinjiang.

This book investigates the root causes of the international community’s apathy towards Tibet and its refusal to respond to the latter’s pleas against China’s occupation. Importantly, it delves into the games played in Central Asia by the three imperial powers — Britain, China and Russia — that have fundamentally shaped the postulates of Tibet’s international status.

Excerpted with permission from Imperial Games in Tibet by Dilip Sinha @2024Pan Macmillan India

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