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BBC : Regions and Territories : TIBET The Status of Tibet

The Status of Tibet

The Tibetan Government-in-exile , headed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled head of state and spiritual leader, has consistently held that Tibet has been under illegal Chinese occupation since China invaded the independent state in 1949/50. The People's Republic of China (PRC) insists that its relation with Tibet is purely an internal affairs, because Tibet is and has been for centuries an integral part of China. The question of Tibet's status is essentially a legal question, albeit one of immediate political relevance. 

The PRC makes no claim to sovereign rights over Tibet as a result of its military subjugation and occupation of Tibet following its armed invasion in 1949-50. Indeed, the PRC could hardly make that claim, since it categorically rejects as illegal claims to sovereignty put forward by other states based on conquest, occupation, or the imposition of unequal treaties. Instead, the PRC bases its claims to Tibet solely on the theory that Tibet became an integral part of China 700 year ago.  

Early History 

Although the history of the Tibetan state started in 127 B.C., with the establishment of the Yarlung Dynasty, the country as we know it was first unified in the 7th Century A.D., under King Songtsen Gampo and his successors. Tibet was one of the mightiest powers of Asia for the three centuries that followed, as a pillar inscription at the foot of the Potala Palace in Lhasa and Chinese Tang histories of the period confirm. A formal peace treat concluded between China and Tibet in 821/823 demarcated the borders between the two countries and ensured that, "Tibetans shall be happy in Tibet and Chinese shall be happy in China." 

Mongol Influence 

As Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire expanded towards Europe in the West and China in the East in the 13th Century, Tibetan leaders of powerful Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism concluded an agreement with the Mongol rulers in order to avoid the conquest of Tibet. The Tibetan Lama promised political loyalty and religious blessings and teachings in exchange for patronage and protection. The religious relationship became so important that when, decades later, Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), he invited the Sakya Lama to become the Imperial Preceptor and supreme pontiff of his empire. 

The relationship that developed and continued to exist into the 20th Century between the Mongols and Tibetans was a reflect of the close racial, cultural, and especially religious affinity between the two Central Asian peoples. The Mongol Empire was a world empire and, whatever the relationship between its rulers and the Tibetans, the Mongols never integrated the administration of Tibet and China or appended Tibet to China in any manner. 

Tibet broke political ties with the Yuan emperor in 1350, before China regained its independence from the Mongols. Not until the 18th Century did Tibet again come under a degree of foreign influence.

Relations with Manchu, Gorkha and British Neighbors

Tibet developed no ties with Chinese Ming Dynasty (1386-1644). On the other hand, the Dalai Lama, who established his sovereign rule over Tibet with the help of a Mongol patron in 1642, did develop close religious ties with the Manchu emperors, who conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Dalai Lama agreed to become the spiritual guide of the Manchu emperor, and accepted patronage and protection in exchange. 

This "priest-patron" relationship (known in Tibetan as Choe-Yoen), which the Dalai Lama also maintained with some Mongol princes and Tibetan nobles, was the only formal tie that existed between the Tibetans and Manchus during the Qing Dynasty. It did not, in itself, affect Tibet's independence. 

On the political level, some powerful Manchu emperors succeeded in exerting a degree of influence over Tibet. Thus, between 1720 and 1792, Emperors Kangxi, Yong Zhen, and Qianlong sent imperial troops to Tibet four times to protect the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people from foreign invasions by Mongols, and Gorkhas or from internal unrest. These expeditions provided the emperor with the means for establishing influence in Tibet. He sent representatives to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, some of whom successfully exercised their influence, in his name, over the Tibetan government, particularly with respect to the conduct of foreign relations. 

At the height of Manchu power, which lasted a few decades, the situation was not unlike that which can exist between a superpower and a satellite or protectorate, and therefore one which, though politically significant, does not extinguish the independent existence of the weaker state. Tibet was never incorporated into the Manchu Empire, much less China, and it continued to conduct its relations with neighboring states largely on its own. 

Manchu influence did not last very long. It was entirely ineffective by the time the British briefly invaded Lhasa and concluded a bilateral treaty with Tibet, the Lhasa Convention, in 1904. Despite this loss of influence, the imperial government in Peking continued to claim some authority over Tibet, particularly with respect to its international relations, an authority which the British imperial government termed "suzerainty" in its dealings with Peking and St. Petersburg, Russia. Chinese imperial armies tried to reassert actual influence in 1910 by invading the country and occupying Lhasa. Following the 1911 revolution in China and the overthrow of the Manchu Empire, the troops surrendered to the Tibetan army and were repatriated under a sino-Tibetan peace accord. The Dalai Lama reasserted Tibet's full independence internally, by issuing a proclamation, and externally, in communications to foreign rulers and in a treaty with Mongolia. Tibet in the 20th Century: Tibet's status following the expulsion of Manchu troops is not subject to serious dispute. What ever ties existed between the Dalai Lama and the Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty were extinguished with the fall of that empire and dynasty. From 1911 to 1950, Tibet successfully avoided undue foreign influence and behaved, in every respect, as a fully independent state. 

Tibet maintained diplomatic relations with nepal, Bhutan, Britain, and later with independent India. Relations with China remain strained. The Chinese waged a border war with Tibet while formally urging Tibet to "join" the Chinese Republic, claiming all along to the world that Tibet already was one of China's "five races."

In an effort to reduce Sino-Tibetan tensions, the British convened a tripartite conference in Simla in 1913 where the representative of the three states met on equal terms. As the British delegation reminded his Chinese counterpart, Tibet entered the conference as "independent nation recognizing no allegiance to China." The conference was unsuccessful in that it did not resolve the difference between Tibet and China. It was, nevertheless, significant in that Anglo-Tibetans friendship was reaffirmed with the conclusion of bilateral trade and border agreements. In a Joint Declaration, Great Britain and Tibet bound themselves not to recognize Chinese suzerainty or other special rights in Tibet unless China signed the draft Simla Convention which would have guaranteed Tibet's greater borders, its territorial integrity and fully autonomy. China never signed the Convention, however, leaving the terms of the Joint Declaration in full force. 

Tibet conducted its international relations primarily by dealing with the British, Chinese, Nepalese, and Bhutanese diplomatic missions in Lhasa, but also through government delegations travelling abroad. When India became independent, the British mission in Lhasa was replaced by an Indian one. During World War II Tibet remained neutral, despite combined pressure from the United States, Great Britain, and China to allow passage of raw materials through Tibet.  

Tibet never maintained extensive international relations, but those countries with whom it did maintain relations treated Tibet as they would with any sovereign state. Its international status was in fact no different from, say, that of Nepal. Thus, when Nepal applied for United Nations' membership in 1949, it cited its treaty and diplomatic relations with Tibet to demonstrate its full international personality. 

The Invasion of Tibet 

The turning point of Tibet's history came in 1949, when the People's Liberation Army of the PRC first crossed into Tibet. After defeating the small Tibetan army and occupying half the country, the Chinese government imposed the so-called "17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" on the Tibetan government in May 1951. Because it was singed under duress, the agreement lacked validity under international law. The presence of 40,000 troops in Tibet, the threat of an immediate occupation of Lhasa, and the prospect of the total obliteration of the Tibetan state left Tibetans little choice. 

As the resistance to the Chinese occupation escalated, particularly in Eastern Tibet, the Chinese repression, which included the destruction of religious buildings and the imprisonment of monks and other community leaders, increased dramatically. By 1959, popular uprising culminated in massive demonstrations in Lhasa. By the time China crushed the uprising, 87,000 Tibetans were dead in the Lhasa region alone, and the Dalai Lama had fled to India, where he now heads the Tibetan Government in exile, headquartered in Dharmsala, India. in 1963, the Dalai Lama promulgated a constitution for a democratic Tibet. It has been successfully implemented, to the extent possible, by the Government-in-exile. Meanwhile, in Tibet religious persecution, consistent violations of human rights, and the wholesale destruction of religious and historic buildings by the occupying authorities have not succeeded in destroying the spirit of the Tibetan people to resist the destruction of the national identity. 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives, (over one-sixth of the population) as a result of the Chinese occupation. But the new generation of Tibetans seems just as determined to regain the country's independence as the older generation was.


In the course of Tibet's 2,000-year history, the country came under a degree of foreign influence only for short periods of time in the 13th and 18th centuries. Few independent countries today can claim as impressive a record. As the ambassador of Ireland to the UN remarked during the General Assembly debates on the question of Tibet, "for thousands of years, for a couple of thousands years at any rate, (Tibet) was a free and as fully in control of its own affairs as any nation in this Assembly, and a thousand times more free to look after it own affairs than many of the nations here." From a legal standpoint, Tibet has not lost its statehood. It is an independent start under illegal occupation. Neither China's military invasion nor the continuing occupation by the PLA has transferred the sovereignty of Tibet to China. As pointed out earlier, the Chinese government has never claimed to have acquired sovereignty over Tibet by conquest. Indeed, China recognizes that the use or threat of force (outside the exceptional circumstances provided for in the UN Charter), the imposition of an unequal treaty, or the continued illegal occupation of a country can never grant an invader legal title to territory. Its claims are based solely on the alleged subjection of Tibet to a few of China's strongest foreign rulers in the 13th and 18th centuries.

(Michael C. van Walt van Praag practices international law. His publication include The Status of Tibet: History, Rights and Prospects in International Law (Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., Wisdom Press, London, 1987) and numerous articles in book collections and magazines.)

BBC : Regions and Territories : TIBET