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Op-Ed: Did Britain Just Sell Tibet?

November 26, 2008

By Robert Barnett
The New York Times
November 25, 2008

THE financial crisis is going to do more than increase unemployment,
bankruptcy and homelessness. It is also likely to reshape
international alignments, sometimes in ways that we would not expect.

As Western powers struggle with the huge scale of the measures needed
to revive their economies, they have turned increasingly to China.
Last month, for example, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister,
asked China to give money to the International Monetary Fund, in
return for which Beijing would expect an increase in its voting share.

Now there is speculation that a trade-off for this arrangement
involved a major shift in the British position on Tibet, whose
leading representatives in exile this weekend called on their leader,
the Dalai Lama, to stop sending envoys to Beijing — bringing the
faltering talks between China and the exiles to a standstill.

The exiles' decision followed an announcement on Oct. 29 by David
Miliband, the British foreign secretary, that after almost a century
of recognizing Tibet as an autonomous entity, Britain had changed its
mind. Mr. Miliband said that Britain had decided to recognize Tibet
as part of the People's Republic of China. He even apologized that
Britain had not done so earlier.

Until that day, the British had described Tibet as autonomous, with
China having a "special position" there. This formula did not endorse
the Tibetan claim to independence. But it meant that in the British
view China's control over Tibet was limited to a condition once known
as suzerainty, somewhat similar to administering a protectorate.
Britain, alone among major powers, had exchanged official agreements
with the Tibetan government before the Chinese takeover in 1951, so
it could scarcely have said otherwise unless it was to vitiate those
agreements.

After the People's Republic of China joined the United Nations in
1971, British politicians refrained from referring to their country's
recognition of Tibet's autonomy to avoid embarrassing Beijing. But
that didn't make it less significant. It remained the silent but
enduring legal basis for 30 years of talks between the Dalai Lama and
Beijing, in which the Tibetans have called only for autonomy and not
independence — a position that a conference of Tibetan exiles in
India reaffirmed on Saturday.

Mr. Miliband described the British position as an anachronism and a
colonial legacy. It certainly emerged out of a shabby episode in
colonial history, Francis Younghusband's cavalier invasion of Tibet
in 1903. But the British description of Tibet's status in the era
before the modern nation-state was more finely tuned than the
versions claimed by Beijing or many exiles, and it was close to the
findings of most historians.

Britain's change of heart risks tearing up a historical record that
frames the international order and could provide the basis for
resolving China's dispute with Tibet. The British government may have
thought the issue of no significance to Britain's current national
interests and so did not submit it to public debate. But the decision
has wider implications. India's claim to a part of its northeast
territories, for example, is largely based on the same agreements —
notes exchanged during the Simla convention of 1914, which set the
boundary between India and Tibet — that the British appear to have
just discarded. That may seem minor to London, but it was over those
same documents that a major war between India and China was fought in
1962, as well as a smaller conflict in 1987.

The British concession to China last month was buried within a public
statement calling on Beijing to grant autonomy in Tibet, leading some
to accuse the British government of hypocrisy. It is more worrying if
it was a miscalculation. The statement was released two days before
the Dalai Lama's envoys began the eighth round of talks with Beijing
on their long-standing request for greater autonomy, apparently
because the British believed — or had been told — that their giveaway
to Beijing would relax the atmosphere and so encourage China to make
concessions to the Dalai Lama.

The result was the opposite. On Nov. 10, China issued a damning
attack on the exile leader, saying his autonomy plan amounted to
ethnic cleansing, disguised independence and the reintroduction of
serfdom and theocracy. The only thing that China will henceforth
discuss with the exiles is the Dalai Lama's personal status, meaning
roughly which luxury residence he can retire to in Beijing.

The official press in China has gleefully attributed European
concessions on Tibet to the financial crisis. "Of course these
European countries are at this time not collectively changing their
tune because their conscience has gotten the better of them,"
announced The International Herald Leader, a government-owned paper
in Beijing, on Nov. 7. It added that the financial crisis "has made
it impossible for them not to consider the 'cost problem' in
continuing to 'aid Tibetan independence' and anger China. After all,
compared to the Dalai, to as quickly as possible pull China onto
Europe's rescue boat is even more important and urgent."

Britain's concession could be China's most significant achievement on
Tibet since American support for Tibetan guerillas was ended before
Nixon's visit to Beijing. Including China in global decision-making
is welcome, but Western powers should not rewrite history to get
support in the financial crisis. It may be more than banks and failed
mortgages that are sold off cheap in the rush to shore up ailing economies.

Robert Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at
Columbia, is the author of "Lhasa: Streets With Memories."
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