US Takes First Step towards Recognising Tibetan Government-in-Exile: the Myth of Historic Chinese Suzerainty over Tibet
Anubhav Shankar

On 22nd of December, the United States finally decided to dust off its ‘Tibet inertia’ by passing the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020 (TPSA), acknowledging the exclusive right of Tibetans only to choose a successor to the Dalai Lama. The act also includes provisions calling on Beijing to protect the fundamental rights of Tibetans in China, their environmental rights as well as religious rights. Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration - the Tibetan government-in-exile in India - described the legislation as a ‘victory for the Tibetan freedom struggle’1.

As expected, ‘wolf-warriors’ at the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused the US of meddling in China’s internal affairs, sovereignty and territorial integrity. For a long time, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has invoked ‘internal affairs’ to justify the brutal repression of Tibetan life in any way it can. If history is to be believed, Tibet was always an independent country which was invaded and occupied by People’s Republic of China (PRC). Thus, Tibet can never be an internal affair of China until there is reconciliation between PRC and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government-in-exile and the Tibetan people in Tibet.

The long chain of historical relations between China and Tibet suggest that both were different and independent entities. Illustrative to this is the Sino-Tibetan Treaty of 821/823 A.D, where Chinese Tang empire concluded a peace treaty with the Tibetan empire, in which it was clearly mentioned that “the whole region to the east of that being the country of Great China and the whole region to the west being assuredly the country of Great Tibet2.” One of the defining characteristics of a Sovereign state, according to Montevideo convention of 1933, is the capacity to conduct relations with other states. The Treaty of 821 A.D establishes the fact that, since ancient times Tibet had enjoyed independent plenipotentiary powers.

The Tibetan government-in-exile has come up with an instrument called Political Treaties of Tibet (821-1951), which documents all the bilateral treaties Tibet had with foreign powers. As late as 1912, Tibet and China (newly formed Republic of China) entered into an agreement on equal footing3, with Nepalese mediation, as independent entities. In 1949, Nepal had formally stated during its application for the membership at the UN that Kathmandu had independent diplomatic relations with Tibet!4

Yet, despite these overwhelming evidences, most countries today consider Tibet as a part of China. Their stand is based on the idea that Tibet was a ‘protectorate’ of the Chinese Manchu dynasty. As such when ROC replaced the Manchu dynasty in 1911 as the government of China, it ‘inherited’ Tibet (as a protectorate) along with other imperial territories into the new republic. But Manchu Empire never had Tibet as its protectorate. In 1903, Amban Yu Tai, the Manchu representative in Lhasa confessed to the British Raj in India that “he was only a guest in Lhasa not a master.........and as such he had no force”5. In fact, two years after the ROC came into being; Tibet’s plenipotentiary sat alongside those of China and Great Britain as equals at the Simla Conference of 19136.

Professor L.L Mehrotra argues that the account of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet was a work of fiction by the British during Lord Curzon’s rule in India to suit its imperial designs in Tibet7. Later, in 1950, this very fiction became the ‘legitimate grounds’ for PRC to invade and occupy Tibet.

While the rest of the world bought the fictional account by the British, India should have stood up for Tibet’s right to exist independently by showcasing her civilizational links with Lhasa which operated separately from her Chinese links. Eminent Indian saints and scholars travelled to Tibet and China with not one but two countries in mind. This is pretty much evident from Chinese chronicles such as Gaoseng Zhuan and Yuzhi Shenseng Zhuan which have recorded the visit of almost every Indian traveller to China from the 6th and 16th centuries8. Yet in those chronicles there are no records of Indian activities in Tibet. Such and other examples point to the fact that Tibet was not an integral part of China. Moreover, Peace Treaty of 1684 between Ladakh and Tibet and Agreement between Kashmir and Tibet in 1852, illustrates the fact that territorial questions centred around the Indo-Tibetan border and not Sino-Indian border.

Perhaps, that is why when India got independent; Government of India sent a note to the Tibetan foreign office stating that “relations to continue on the existing basis” only by the willing consent of the two sovereign nations, India and Tibet”9. The note explicitly suggests that India is addressing an independent sovereign nation. Yet when the time came to defend Tibet’s independent existence after China’s invasion, Prime Minister Nehru towed the British line of recognising Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

Nehru believed that ‘neither India nor any external power could prevent the Chinese takeover of Tibet’ and therefore, to ensure the safety and security of India accepted Chinese claim over Tibet in return for friendship from Beijing10. With the Nehru and Attlee government (Britain) unwilling to back the Tibetans in the UN, the Tibetan question never proceeded beyond the preliminaries. United States had already committed Tibet to the Kuomintang regime since the 1940s and stuck by it to keep Chiang Kai-shek happy; for Formosa had pledged unflinching loyalty to Washington in her fight against communism.

Although the United States’ has not changed its "Tibet is part of China” policy, Trump administration has significantly changed US approach towards China on Tibetan autonomous rights. From usual appeals and suggestions on Tibetan rights to Beijing, Washington has now shifted to direct demands and directives to CCP by passing acts like Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act 2018 and TPSA. The Trump administration also invited the Sikyong (President) of Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay in November 2020 to the White House despite United States not recognising the exiled government. But now by passing the TPSA, United States formally acknowledges the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) as the legitimate institution reflecting the aspirations of the Tibetan Diaspora around the world and Sikyong as the President of the CTA11. The Trump administration has also appointed a Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues to institutionalise dialogue process between the US and CTA.

As Washington puts its weight behind the Central Tibet Authority, New Delhi as its host will need to re-think its Tibet’s policy. A return to an Independent Tibet is not possible now, but India and the United States together can build international pressure on Beijing to reconcile with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people to provide them with some form of just and fair autonomous arrangement.

  2. L.L Mehrotra, India’s Tibet Policy, An Appraisal and Options (New Delhi: Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre, 1997), p. 6
  3. Political Treaties Of Tibet (821 to 1951), (DIIR PUBLICATIONS, 1952)
  4. L.L Mehrotra, India’s Tibet Policy, An Appraisal and Options (New Delhi: Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre, 1997), p. 8
  5. Tibet was not Part of China but Middle Way Remains a Viable Solution, Central Tibetan Administration’s Response to China’s White Paper on Tibet (Dharamshala: The Department of Information and International Relations, 2015), p. 4
  7. L.L Mehrotra, India’s Tibet Policy, An Appraisal and Options (New Delhi: Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre, 1997), p.p 9-10
  8. L.L Mehrotra, India’s Tibet Policy, An Appraisal and Options (New Delhi: Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre, 1997), p. 5
  9. Claude Arpi, “India Tibet relations 1947-1949 India begins to vacillate”, International Conference on Exploring Tibet's History and Culture, 2009. p. 4

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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A refreshing and well written article on an issue often not in the limelight. Kudos


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