Britain rewrites history by recognising Tibet as part of China for the first time

Thursday, 6 November 2008

On 29 October 2008 British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, issued a Written Ministerial Statement(1) on Tibet. The statement highlighted official British concerns at ongoing human rights issues in Tibet such as “the situation of those who remain in detention following the unrest” earlier this year. But the statement’s real significance lay in a paragraph, tucked away towards the end of the statement, in which the British government publicly renounced its long-standing and unique position on Tibet’s status within China.

Up until the statement, Britain’s position recognised that China had a “special position” in Tibet but fell short of stating that Tibet was part of China. In the statement, however, this position was deemed an “anachronism”; Miliband continued by setting out explicitly that “we [the British government] regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China”.

Britain’s position on the legal status of Tibet matters enormously because it is the only major power to have dealt directly with the Tibetan government before China’s 1950 invasion and occupation of Tibet. Its position was based on treaties it signed with the Tibetan government, notably the Simla Accords of 1913 which established the boundaries between Tibet and British-administered India. Britain recognized Chinese suzerainty(2) in Tibet, but only provided that China accepted Tibet’s autonomy; China never did and therefore even the British offer to recognize China’s suzerainty remained contingent only. This view was emphasised by then British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, in 1920 when he also stated that Britain had viewed Tibet as de facto independent since 1912. The British position was re-iterated in 1943 when the then Chinese foreign minister asked Anthony Eden for Britain’s position on the status of Tibet.(3)

In a stroke David Miliband’s statement changed the British position from one of conditional recognition of China’s suzerainty over Tibet to one of China’s sovereignty in Tibet. This matters as, up until last week, China could not claim that the entire international community recognised Tibet as part of China because Britain did not. And Britain’s view mattered because, up until 1947, its historical position in India, and consequent relations with Tibet, meant that it was strongly competent to judge the nature of Tibet’s status vis a vis China.

The timing of the statement coincided with envoys of the Dalai Lama travelling to Beijing for the eighth round of Sino-Tibetan talks since 2002. In a statement issued today following the conclusion of the latest round (4), the envoys said that they had handed to the Chinese leadership a memorandum on genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people. Many of the issues under negotiation between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Beijing, such as autonomy, are those addressed in the Simla Accords and the various statements previously issued by Britain on Tibet’s legal status. It can be argued, therefore, that the change in Britain’s position undermines the legal and political basis for the arguments being made by the Dalai Lama’s envoys.

Director of Free Tibet, Stephanie Brigden, said: “Britain was the only power that dealt directly with the Tibetan government before China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet. It never said that Tibet was a part of China, but rather that China had a special position in Tibet. The Written Ministerial Statement last week, stating that Tibet is a part of China, hands over Britain’s main leverage and influence on China with nothing in return. It is extraordinary that Britain has rewarded China in such a way in the very year that China has committed its worst human rights abuses in Tibet in decades, including killings and torture.”


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Notes to Editor:

(1) The full Written Ministerial Statement is available at: The full statement is also reproduced below.
(2) Suzerainty denotes the power held by one country over another that nevertheless enjoys some degree of self-government.
(3) In 1943 the Chinese foreign minister was told that the British government “had always been prepared to recognize Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, but only on the understanding that Tibet is regarded as autonomous”. (Memorandum from Sir Anthony Eden to to the Chinese foreign minister, TV Soong, 05/08/43, FO371/93001). Further information on the history of Britain’s position on Tibet is available at:
(4) The envoys’ statement is available at:

The Written Ministerial Statement:

Foreign & Commonwealth Office Written Ministerial Statement 29 October 2008

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. David Miliband):

A new round of talks on Tibet between the Chinese Government and representatives of the Dalai Lama is likely to take place shortly. These talks are hugely important for the future of Tibet. They provide the only forum in which there is any realistic possibility of progress to resolve the differences between the parties involved.

The Chinese Government has said that it is serious about dialogue and that it hopes for a positive outcome. It has set conditions for dialogue which we believe the Dalai Lama has met. The Dalai Lama has made clear that he is not seeking separation or independence. He has said repeatedly that he is seeking a resolution to the situation of Tibet within the framework of the Chinese constitution, a point he made explicitly in an interview with the Financial Times on 24 May during his visit to the United Kingdom. He said: he was “not seeking separation, not seeking independence, but within the framework of the Chinese Constitution, meaningful realistic autonomy [for Tibetans]”. He has maintained a clear opposition to violence.

The British Government has a strong interest in the dialogue between the Chinese Government and the Dalai Lama’s representatives, although we are not a party to it. No government which is committed to promoting international respect for human rights can remain silent on the issue of Tibet, or disinterested in a solution to its problems.

Britain has been clear under this Government about our commitment to the people of Tibet. We remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation there. My Rt. hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out our concerns to Premier Wen during discussions in the spring and again when they met in Beijing during the Olympic Games. I have made the same point to Foreign Minister Yang on a number of occasions since the unrest in March this year in Tibet. We have consistently made clear that we want to see the human rights of the Tibetan people respected, including through respect for their distinct culture, language, traditions and religions. Our interest is not in restoring an order which existed 60 years ago and which the Dalai Lama himself has said he does not seek to restore.

We are also concerned at more immediate issues arising directly from the unrest of this spring, including the situation of those who remain in detention following the unrest, the increased constraints on religious activity, and the limitations on free access to the Tibetan Autonomous Region by diplomats and journalists. These issues reinforce long-held unease on the part of the Government about the underlying human rights situation in Tibet.

Other countries have made similar points. But our position is unusual for one reason of history that has been imported into the present: the anachronism of our formal position on whether Tibet is part of China, and whether in fact we harbour continued designs to see the break up of China. We do not.

Our ability to get our points across has sometimes been clouded by the position the UK took at the start of the 20th century on the status of Tibet, a position based on the geo-politics of the time. Our recognition of China’s “special position” in Tibet developed from the outdated concept of suzerainty. Some have used this to cast doubt on the aims we are pursuing and to claim that we are denying Chinese sovereignty over a large part of its own territory. We have made clear to the Chinese Government, and publicly, that we do not support Tibetan independence. Like every other EU member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China. Our interest is in long term stability, which can only be achieved through respect for human rights and greater autonomy for the Tibetans.

We have noted recent comments by the Dalai Lama regretting the lack of progress in the dialogue so far. We are also aware of indications of growing frustration among some Tibetans about the dialogue process. We consider the position the Dalai Lama has stated publicly, including when he visited Britain this year, that he opposes violence and is seeking meaningful autonomy within the framework of the Chinese constitution, provides a basis for a negotiated settlement. Our strong view is that genuine progress at the next round of talks is essential to promote progress on such a settlement. Participation in these talks carries a weight of responsibility for both parties.