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The Simla Convention

While the Chinese army of 1910 occupied Tibet, the thirteenth Dalai Lama lived in Darjeeling, India, contemplating the circumstances that had allowed Lhasa to be twice conquered within six years. During this time he developed a close friendship with Sir Charles Bell, the government of India's political officer in Sikkim, and learned a great deal about modern politics, seeing firsthand how an efficient and dedicated bureaucracy and army could rule a vast country. The beginnings of a new vision of Tibet formed.

The fall of the Qing dynasty was a stroke of good fortune that the thirteenth Dalai Lama immediately capitalized on. From exile in India he organized a military force to regain his power, and with the help of Nepalese mediation in Lhasa, soon succeeded in expelling all Chinese officials and troops from Tibet. The thirteenth Dalai Lama triumphantly returned to Lhasa in 1913. Yuan Shikai, the provisional president of the new Chinese government that succeeded the Qing, sent the Dalai Lama the following "reinstatement" telegram:

Now that the Republic has been firmly established and the Five Races [Han, Tibetan, Manchu, Mongol, Muslim] deeply united into one family, the Dalai Lama is naturally moved with a feeling of deep attachment to the mother country. Under the circumstances, his former errors should be overlooked, and his


Title of Loyal and Submissive Vice-Regent, Great, Good, and Self-Existent Buddha is hereby restored to him, in the hope that he may prove a support to the Yellow Church and a help to the Republic.[1]

The Dalai Lama replied that he had not asked for his former rank from the Chinese government and that he "intended to exercise both temporal and ecclesiastic rule in Tibet."[2] Many interpret this and a proclamation he issued twenty-two days after he returned as the equivalent of a declaration of independence.

The Tibet Question, however, was far from settled since the new Chinese republican government took the position that the non-Chinese territories the Manchu emperors had subjugated—including Tibet—were part of their republic. Sun Yatsen, the "father of the revolution," for example, was extremely nationalistic and had called for the creation of a strong Chinese state that would expel the Japanese from Manchuria, the Russians from Mongolia, and the British from Tibet .[3] One of the fundamental nationalistic goals of the Chinese revolution, therefore, was to restore China to its former greatness, and regaining control of Tibet took on great symbolic significance. Thus, on April 12, 1912, the new Chinese republic headed by Yuan Shikai issued an edict that declared Tibet, Mongolia, and Xinjiang on equal footing with the provinces of China proper and as integral parts of the republic. Seats were set aside for Tibetans in the National Assembly and a five-colored flag was created, the black band representing Tibet.[4] The Tibet Question in its modern incarnation had been born.

Given the conflicting national aspirations, Tibet clearly had to reach some accommodation with China regarding its political status or be prepared to defend its territory and newly declared "independence." As we shall see, it turned out to be unable to do the former and unwilling to take the steps needed to do the latter. With no effective army at its disposal, Tibet sought to reach an agreement with China's new rulers and received


support in this from a new friend—British India. The government of British India had found China a bad neighbor during the 1905–1911 period of direct Chinese power in Tibet. Chinese officials manning the long Indo-Tibetan border seemed to the English to be using their power to foment trouble among the Indian border tribes. Britain therefore sought to prevent the recurrence of direct Chinese control by creating a buffer state in Tibet. In 1913, with the intent of achieving that end, Britain pressured the new Chinese republican government to participate in a conference with itself and Tibet in Simla, India. The Simla negotiations produced a draft convention in 1914 that set the background for the Tibet Question during the next four decades.

Tibet initially wanted the conference to declare it independent. Shatra, the Tibetan plenipotentiary, expressed this in his opening statement when he said: "Tibet and China have never been under each other and will never associate with each other in future. It is decided that Tibet is an independent State and that the precious Protector, the Dalai Lama, is the ruler of Tibet in all temporal as well as in spiritual affairs."[5] China, on the other hand, forcefully claimed the opposite in its initial Simla statement: "Tibet forms an integral part of the territory of the Republic of China, that no attempts shall be made by Tibet or by Great Britain to interrupt the continuity of this territorial integrity, and that China's rights of every description which have existed in consequence of this territorial integrity shall be respected by Tibet and recognized by Great Britain."[6]

Tibet's only hope of achieving its aim was for Great Britain to act as its champion. British strategic aims, however, were not congruent with those of Lhasa. As in 1904, London did not want to support an independent Tibet or convert Tibet into an Indian protectorate as it had done in the case of Sikkim and Bhutan. London was still unwilling to face the international criticism that support for Tibet's claim to independence would engender and was also fearful of negatively impacting British


trade interests in China and Hong Kong. So Britain proposed that Tibet be accepted as a self-governing dominion nominally under China but with Chinese influence and power severely limited.

The final draft of the Simla Convention therefore declared that Tibet would be autonomous from China, but also acknowledged Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. Tibetans would administrate Tibet with its own officials in accordance with its own customs and laws, and China would not be permitted to station large numbers of troops or officials in Tibet—but China could maintain a commissioner in Lhasa and an escort of up to three hundred men. This compromise was not the independence Tibet wanted, but nonetheless did guarantee that it would retain complete control over its affairs, including the army, currency, and all other important functions. It would also legitimize an international identity for Tibet and spare it the burden of having to prepare for possible military conflict with China. Britain, of course, achieved exactly what it had sought—a harmless buffer zone along India's northern border in which its political interests were fulfilled and its commercial interests could develop.

The Tibetan and Chinese plenipotentiaries at Simla agreed to this political compromise but found it impossible to agree where to draw the boundary between political Tibet and China. At issue was ethnographic Tibet, the belt of semiautonomous ethnic Tibetan areas in eastern Tibet and western Sichuan. Tibet insisted that all ethnographic Tibet be included in its territory while China claimed its border began a mere one hundred twenty-five miles east of Lhasa. British mediation produced a number of compromises including an Inner and Outer Tibet analogous to Inner and Outer Mongolia, but in the end the new Chinese government repudiated the final border and refused to ratify the Simla Convention.

Sir Henry McMahon, the British representative, now sought permission from London to sign the convention directly with


Tibet. The foreign office, however, balked, concluding that this would be tantamount to a formal recognition of Tibetan independence. Nevertheless, since British India had clear strategic goals it needed to meet, something had to be done. In the end it devised an ingenious innovation to secure its goal. McMahon was authorized to sign a bilateral note with Tibet that bound each side to the terms of the unsigned Simla Convention. Although this was not a real treaty, British India then felt justified in pursuing its relations with Tibet in accordance with the "autonomy" stipulated in the terms of the unsigned Simla Convention, and continued to do so for the next thirty-five years. It also obtained from Tibet a vast territory east of Bhutan (today's Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh). Here we see the beginnings of what we can think of as the "bad friend syndrome"—Western powers professing friendship for Tibet but refusing to support it in its fundamental objective of political independence while actually bolstering China's claim of real ownership.

For Tibet, Simla did nothing to resolve the Tibet Question. Since China did not agree to the convention, Tibet still had no de jure status accepted by China. And the new Anglo-Tibetan note provided no guarantees that the British would militarily defend the rights specified in the Simla Convention if China sought to enforce its claim over Tibet by force. Britain was willing to accept Tibet's right to cede the vast territory of Arunachal Pradesh independent of China's wishes, but was unwilling to acknowledge that such authority validated Tibet's assertion of independence.[7]

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