Tibet’s long road to peace with China has an end if suspicions are put aside

By Tenzin Norgay

South China Morning Post | April 28, 2014

Tenzin Norgay says by doing so, a reconciliation process started 100 year ago could be completed

Modern China has a wide range of problems. Hardly anyone doubts that Tibet is a historical and political problem for China. In the passionate debate about the status of Tibet, few realise that Tibet’s modern peacemaking project with China began a century ago: the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” policy has its genesis in an obscure conference 100 years ago yesterday.

On April 27, 1914, British India, China and Tibet signed a tripartite accord at Simla. And thus was born the concept of inner and outer Tibet and the infamous McMahon line that divides India and China. Today, India, China and the Tibetans live in the peculiar legacy of that failed secret conference – a byproduct of the Great Game. The fact is that the origin for Tibet’s division in the Tibet autonomous region and four neighbouring Chinese provinces, and the 90,000 square kilometres eastern-sector territorial dispute between India and China can be traced to this convention.

All the 1914 stakeholders later adapted that conference according to nationalist narratives; Tibetans claim it as a proof of independence, China considers it one of the unequal treaties forced upon it during the “century of humiliation”, and India argues legalistically that Arunachal Pradesh is its territory as the successor state of British India.

But all parties have failed to see what it was all about to begin with. It was simply a peacemaking deal to keep armed hostilities in abeyance during the political flux of early 20th century.

Before imperial Britain arrived on the Asian scene, Tibet and China coexisted geographically and have developed a complex relationship over the centuries. Unable to fully grasp the peculiarities of this relation, Britain conveniently termed it suzerainty.

Sovereignty is a fluid concept that is best understood today in terms of territoriality. Despite all its failings, the Westphalian nation-state system is here to stay. There are no alternatives, and it has been relatively successful in maintaining international peace and prosperity, including China’s own rise.

In these early decades of the 21st century, nobody doubts the sovereignty of China over Tibet. China has risen. But its Leviathan-like domestic governance has created major grievances among its minorities. Ironically, China acts like an insecure power despite all the muscles in its power metrics. It is about time China takes more global responsibility to further prosper the Westphalian system and stop acting like an insecure Leviathan.

And here is the beauty of Tibetan diplomacy and its middle way policy for maintaining peace, firmly grounded in more than 2,000 years of Buddhist philosophical underpinnings. The 13th Dalai Lama acquiesced that “Tibet forms part of Chinese territory” in the Simla accord, with the top priority to end armed hostilities with the politico-military Chinese adventurers and preserve its 150-year-old internal autonomy.

Tibetans outside the current autonomous region have long been fiercely independent-minded people. Where both Tibetan and Chinese bureaucrats failed miserably, Tibetan lamas have been able to retain their loyalty. Despite the fact that it has now been 55 years since the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet after the failed 1951 17-point agreement, eastern Tibet is still passionately loyal to him.

This is evident in the fact that out of some 130 self-immolations in Tibet since March 2009, 94 per cent of them occurred outside of the officially designated Tibet Autonomous Region, with the overwhelming demand for the return of their beloved leader.

It is clear that the Dalai Lama still rules the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people despite Beijing’s billions of dollars in investment and the heavily subsidised economy in Tibet.

In a globalised world, a look beyond worldly Confucianism is all it may take to manage this century-old modern conflict. Beijing should revisit its history to learn that the 1914 Simla accord was concluded at a time when China steadily lost its traditional dependencies in international politics. It will find that the Simla accord marks the modern genesis of Tibet’s middle way policy.

This modern peacemaking project begun a hundred years ago by the 13th Dalai Lama is still in progress. Despite the moral right to secede due to the grievances and destruction caused by Mao Zedong’s ultra-leftist policies, all that the 14th Dalai Lama is asking for is application of a uniform policy across inhabitants on the Tibetan plateau, now divided into one autonomous region and four provinces – with reference to the 1914 Simla accord – without dissolving the current domestic boundaries.

And this is achievable if Beijing sheds its proverbial suspicion and completes the reconciliation process begun a hundred years ago.

Tenzin Norgay is a senior policy analyst at the Tibet Policy Institute. He specialises in majority-minority relations in China and Sino-Tibet negotiations



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