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The British Enter the Picture

By the late nineteenth century British influence on the Indian subcontinent extended right to the border of Tibet as the string of Himalayan states and principalities fell under British influence. As early as 1861 the British colonial government in India approved an "exploratory" mission to Lhasa if permits could be obtained from China. There was considerable hope that a flourishing trade might develop between Tibet and India, with India siphoning up some of the substantial Sino-Tibetan trade in tea and manufactured goods and receiving wool, horns, skins, medicinal herbs, gold, musk, and so forth, from Tibet. At that time Tibet prohibited the importation of India tea. Britain secured China's approval for such a mission in the Chefu convention of 1876, which permitted India to send a "mission of exploration" from China to Tibet either by way of Sichuan or Gansu, or from India.[19]

In 1886 a British mission—the Macaulay mission—was assembled in Sikkim to enter Tibet. Tibetan opposition prevented its departure, but its presence prompted Tibet to send troops into a border section of Sikkim it claimed as its own territory. This led in turn to a British attack in 1888 that drove the Tibetans out of the area. As a result of the fighting, the Manchu


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amban in Lhasa went to India for discussions with the British. These talks led to the treaty of 1890 in which Britain's protectorate over Sikkim was recognized by China, and the Sikkim-Tibet border was delineated. Three years later, in 1893, a British trade treaty with China obtained Chinese acceptance of a "trade mart" at Yadong on the Tibetan side of the Sikkim-Tibet border that would be open to all British subjects for commerce. The British government also secured the right to send officials to reside in Yadong (Tibet) to oversee British trade there.

Tibet, however, was not a party to these agreements and refused to cooperate in their implementation. A stalemate ensued. Such was the situation when Lord Curzon took office as the new viceroy of India in 1899. He realized that China had no practical control over events in Tibet, so he obtained permission from London to try to initiate direct communication and relations with Lhasa. The thirteenth Dalai Lama (who had assumed power in 1895) had no interest in relations with the British, so when Curzon sent him a series of letters, he returned them unopened with the reply that the Chinese would be displeased if the Dalai Lama were to correspond with the British.[20] Unable to initiate face-to-face talks with the Tibetan government, Curzon next convinced London in 1903 to permit an expedition to enter Tibet to force negotiations. The Tibetans refused to negotiate with this expedition, so its British officers and officials led their Indian troops deeper and deeper into Tibet, ostensibly to induce negotiations. The Tibetan military attempted to block their advance, and a series of battles ensued in which the Tibetans were easily defeated, suffering losses of over a thousand troops. In the battle of Guru alone, between six hundred and seven hundred Tibetan troops were killed in a matter of minutes. No match for the invaders, the British force entered Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on August 3, 1904. They were the first Western troops ever to conquer Tibet.

Throughout this period the Chinese government (through its amban ) urged the thirteenth Dalai Lama to negotiate with


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the British expeditionary force to prevent their further advance, and then when it was about to enter Lhasa, to meet with Younghusband, its leader. But China had no control over the Dalai Lama, who ignored these admonitions and fled to exile in Mongolia, fearing he would be compelled to sign an unfavorable agreement. From Mongolia, the Dalai Lama hoped to obtain the czar's support against Britain.

To secure the withdrawal of the British troops from Lhasa, the Tibetan officials left in charge by the Dalai Lama reluctantly agreed to British terms, which were codified in an agreement known as the Anglo-Tibet Convention of 1904. Signed by only Tibet and the British head of the expeditionary force—the Manchu amban refused to place his signature on it—this agreement accepted Britain's protectorate over Sikkim and gave India (Britain) the right to establish trade marts with British trade officials in three Tibetan towns (Gyantse, Gartok, and Yadong). In a clause that was vague enough to exclude China as well as more obvious countries such as Russia it also forbade any other foreign power to exercise political influence in Tibet. A large indemnity of £562,500 (7.5 million rupees) was levied and British troops were to occupy a part of Tibet contiguous with Sikkim (Yadong's Chumbi Valley) until this was paid. It was also agreed that the British trade agent could visit Lhasa to discuss issues deriving from the treaty.[21] By virtue of these terms, British India virtually converted Tibet into another of its "native-state" protectorates.

News of the fighting in Tibet and the seizure of Lhasa shocked many in London who had not authorized Curzon to conquer Tibet. Britain's interests transcended those of India, and considerations of Hong Kong and Russia quickly led the British foreign office to repudiate many of the political advantages secured via the Anglo-Tibetan Convention of 1904. The large indemnity was reduced by two thirds to £168,000, and British troops were prohibited from occupying the Tibetan Chumbi Valley for more than three years. Similarly, the right of


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the trade agent to visit Lhasa (and influence affairs there) was also unilaterally rescinded.

Nevertheless, the final Anglo-Tibetan accord opened up Tibet to British interests. However, it also created a major diplomatic and legal problem regarding China. Because the amban had not signed the treaty (nor had the Chinese government approved it), unless London decided to forsake China's views and make Tibet its dependency or accept its status as an independent country, it had to secure Chinese consent to its gains. The contradiction inherent in Britain's Tibet strategy was that while Great Britain had to deal directly with the Tibetan government to achieve its ends, it had to deal with China to legitimize them.

For China, the whole affair was another humiliation suffered at the hands of the Western imperialists. From the Qing court's vantage, the Dalai Lama had blithely ignored China's orders to negotiate with the British, so the British now had troops and officials resident in Tibet. Moreover, the bilateral agreement Britain and Tibet had signed contained an ambiguous clause that barred foreign powers from political influence in Tibet. Given the way Western countries had treated China over the past half century, it was not difficult for Beijing to suspect that this was a British ploy to exclude them from Tibet.

Fortunately for China, however, London's China policy did not favor transforming Tibet into a British dependency, let alone accept it as an independent nation, and the British promptly assuaged China by entering into negotiations to obtain its acceptance of the convention Younghusband had signed with Tibet. The resultant 1906 Anglo-Chinese Convention modified the 1904 accord (without the involvement of Tibet's government), reaffirming China's legitimate authority over its dependency Tibet. The key articles in the convention said: "The Government of Great Britain engages not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Government of China also undertakes not to permit any other foreign state to interfere with the territory or internal administration of Tibet."


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And "The Concessions which are mentioned [in the 1904 convention] are denied to any state other than China."[22] Thus, at a time when China was unable to exercise real power in Tibet, Britain unilaterally reaffirmed Tibet's political subordination to China.

The next year an Anglo-Russian agreement further internationalized this situation, stating in article 2, "In conformity with the admitted principle of the suzerainty of China over Thibet, Great Britain and Russia engage not to enter into negotiations with Thibet except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government."[23]


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