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The Historical Evolution of 

American Policy Toward Tibet

BY HU YAN  

Tibet is well known around the world today. The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is one of China’s five ethnic minorities’ autonomous regions. However, to some in the West, Tibet’s political position seems open to dispute.

It is obviously that no one can reach a proper understanding of this issue without consulting history.  In ancient times, Tibet was a vague geographical concept to Western world, but it did witness competition between the great powers in modern times.  Originally the so-called “Great Game” brought Russian and British monk-spies and, eventually, the British Indian army, into Lhasa. Then, during World War II, the US established the famous air transport route known as the “Hump”, during which the aircraft flew through Tibetan airspace.  Thus, the issue of Tibetan independence, which never existed before Europeans came to Asia, became unavoidably connected with the Western powers.  Since American hegemony has dominated the Western world for more than half a century, the viewpoints of the United States and its policies towards Tibet are an important key to the issue. 

Although American influence on Tibet came later than that of Russia and Britain, it increased after World War II, when the Cold War began and a group of leaders from the Gaxag (the local Tibetan Government) asked the US Government to support their claim for independence.  It continued to increase after 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet and established his Government-in-exile in India.  Nowadays, the US is in the forefront of Western support for the Dalai Lama, although it has never officially recognized the Tibetan Government-in-exile. It seems clear that the issue of Tibetan independence cannot be properly examined without considering this American influence.  Yet, very few books have narrated clearly the story of American involvement in Tibetan issues—how did the US develop its Tibetan policy?  What were the background and aims of this policy?  When did the US start to take a hand in Tibet?  Why did it do so, and how did American Tibetan policy develop?

In order to trace the historical process and to analyze US involvement in Tibet from the perspective of Sino-US relations, one should pay attention to the period from the 1880’s to the 1970’s, starting with William Woodville Rockhill (the first American to travel through the Tibetan areas, during which he interviewed the 13th Dalai Lama and wrote to the then US president about Tibet), ending with Richard Nixon (the first US president who visited Beijing and met Chairman Mao).  I prefer to leave the later decades untouched, mainly because the archives, both in Chinese and in English, about that period are, at present, still classified and inaccessible.

As a geographical concept, Tibet differs between the Western and Eastern perceptions.  Although the English word Tibet is translated into Chinese as “Xizang”, “Xizang” does not equal Tibet. “Xizang” is a Chinese name given by the Qing (Manchu) Emperor Kangxi when he ruled the whole of China, which basically indicates the area in which the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is now located.  On the other hand, the name Tibet is quite ambiguous.  Sometimes, it indicates the Tibet Autonomous Region, which some westerners say has been “invaded” by China. Sometimes it indicates not only Xizang, but also the Tibetan areas in China’s Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, as one often reads in some Western books.  In fact, the Gaxag never administered the latter since it was established by the Qing Emperor Qianlong in 1757, and the Dalai Lamas exerted only religious influence there.  The word Tibet in this thesis means “Xizang” proper, namely the region of Tibet where the Gaxag ruled during the period from the 1750’s to 1951.  It is basically today’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

1.The Early Contacts Between Tibet and the US and America’s Early Attitudes towards Tibet (From the End of the 19th Century to the End of the 1930’s).

The last years of the 19th century saw the earliest contacts between Tibet and the US. Rockhill traveled through China’s north-western and south-western parts, wrote much about the Mongolians and Tibetans and even learned to speak Tibetan.  Soon after he was appointed the American Minister to China, Rockhill met the 13th Dalai Lama and submitted a report to the then American President Roosevelt.

When John Hay, the US Secretary of State, put forward the “Open Door” policy regarding China in 1899, the US began to pay attention to Tibet, although she had not at that time produced any clear Tibetan policy.

A British army, led by Francis Younghusband, invaded Tibet and eventually entered Lhasa in 1904.  In the view of the US, this British invasion meant that Great Britain was making efforts to include Tibet in its sphere of influence by using the geographical advantage of the adjacent British India.  These efforts, contradictory to the “Open Door” policy, definitely threatened American interests in China, and so it objected.  Joseph H. Choate, the American ambassador to Britain called, soon after the invasion, on Lord Lansdowne, the British Foreign Secretary, seeking assurances that the latter still regarded Tibet as a part of the Chinese Empire, and expressed his government’s disapproval of the policy followed by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of British India, which regarded China as having no sovereignty but only suzerainty over Tibet.

Soon after China’s 1912 revolution, the Yuan Shi-kai Government sent troops to Tibet to restore order and the traditional relationship between the Chinese central Government and the Tibetan Government.  Great Britain lost no time in sabotaging China’s effort.  Sir John Newell Jordan, the British ambassador to China, denied China’s right to send its troops into Tibet. He also asked China to take part in the Simla Conference to discuss Tibetan issues with Great Britain and Tibet, and then made the recognition of China’s new Government conditional on this.

Once again the American Government raised objections.  Without accepting Great Britain’s suggestion to recognize China’s new Government as a common action by the Western powers, the US was, in fact, the first of these to give formal recognition to the Republic of China in May 1912.  Of course, the recognition was not a result of exclusive consideration over Tibetan issues; nevertheless, American attitudes towards Tibet differed increasingly from those of Great Britain.

The tripartite Simla Conference, in which the Chinese Government was forced to send its delegation to attend on equal terms with Tibet and British India, never reached a formal convention.  After World War I, Great Britain urged the Chinese Government to reopen negotiations.  Knowing its weak position and the friendly attitude of the US on Tibetan issues, China considered whether it would be of benefit to invite the Americans to mediate between Britain and itself on the issues.  Although this suggestion was never offered by the Chinese Government, Sir John W. Jordan opposed it even when it was no more than a rumor.  His strong dislike was based on the fact that the US was pro-Chinese on Tibetan issues and took Tibet to be part of China.  Just as Professor Owen Lattimore, an American scholar, said later: “the American doctrine is the integrity of China....The American concept of the integrity of China is that Tibet, Mongolia and Sinkiang (Xinjiang) are all part of China”. In fact, the US Government did not change this attitude until the end of the 1930’s.

Generally speaking, from 1900 to the end of the 1930’s, the US Government took Tibet as a part of China, against Great Britain’s denial of China’s sovereignty over Tibet.  As a logical development and an extension of the “Open Door” policy, this attitude was based on, and resulted from, not only the historical facts, but the consideration of America’s own interests in China.  It was this attitude that resulted in the establishment of a Tibetan policy that exerted both an active influence on US China policy as a whole, and a negative one on British efforts to alienate Tibet from China.

2 World War II and The Making of the US’s Tibetan Policy (1940-1945, During World War II).

When China, the US, the USSR and Great Britain formed an alliance to fight against the Axis powers Tibet once again attracted American attention and direct contacts began.

On July 2nd, 1942, Captain Ilya Tolstoy II and Lieutenant Brook Dolan were sent to Lhasa by the Office of Strategic Services.  They arrived in Lhasa via India at the end of the year and handed President Roosevelt’s letters and gifts to the Dalai Lama and the Regent.  Then three months later, the two Americans left for the US with Lhasa’s replies and gifts to the President.

Meanwhile, a memorandum issued by the Department of State in June 1942 included Tibet in the total territory of China.[1]  When talking about Tibet soon after, Secretary of State Cordell Hull reminded Clarence E. Gauss, the American Ambassador to China:

“The Chinese Government have long claimed suzerainty over Tibet, the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among the areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China, and … [the U.S.] … Government has at no time raised questions regarding either of these claims.”

Great Britain, of course, was not happy about this attitude.  The British Embassy sent a memorandum to the American Department of State in April 1943 informing the latter of the negotiations between China and Britain over Tibetan issues and over the transportation of war materials from India to inland China via Tibet. Using the Government of India’s words, the memorandum declared:

“The Government of India has always held that Tibet is a separate country in full enjoyment of local autonomy, entitled to exchange diplomatic repre­sentatives with other Powers.  The relationship between China and Tibet is not a matter that can be unilaterally decided by China, but one on which Tibet is entitled to negotiate, and on which she can, if necessary, count on the diplomatic support of the British Government along the lines shown above. ”

The Department of State replied to Britain promptly by sending a memorandum on May 15th to the British Embassy, stating:

The Department of State appreciates the courtesy of the British Embassy in acquainting this Government.With regard to the position of Tibet in Asia, the British Government has been so good as to give an account of its historical attitude. For its part, the Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese Government has long claimed suzerainty over Tibet and that the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among the areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims. The Government of the United States does not believe that a useful purpose would be served by opening, at this time, a detailed discussion on the status of Tibet.”

No one knows whether the Chinese Government had persuaded or urged the US to issue such a memorandum and to show its dissent over Tibet’s status so openly with Great Britain.  However, one fact might be mentioned here: just before the memoranda were exchanged between Great Britain and the US, the Gaxag declared the establishment of a “Foreign Bureau” and asked the Tibet Office in Lhasa of the Chinese Government’s Commission for the Mongolian and Tibetan Affaires (CGCMTA) to contact the Foreign Bureau instead of the Gaxag directly as before.  By doing so, it intended to prove that it was an independent government.  Meanwhile, the Gaxag rejected the plan of building a road from India to inland China via Tibet.  As a result, Chiang Kai-shek sent troops to the Qinghai-Tibet border, delivered a very strong speech to the representative of the Tibetan Government in Chongqing and refused British mediation.  Never before had the Chinese Government taken such a strict attitude over Tibet.  It was reasonable to deduce that the Chinese Government had been quite sure, if it had not been informed directly that US support was reliable.

By repeating the same words, which Cordell Hull wrote to Clarence E. Gauss one year before, the US clarified, in a memorandum of May 15th, 1943, its disagreement with Britain.  It was formed in a special circumstance of war, subject to the American China policy as a whole—to help and support China to become a great power and to win the war against Japan.  This policy obviously backed Chinese claims to Tibet and benefited China’s struggle with Britain on the Tibetan issue.  However, it was not for China’s interests but that of the United States.  Furthermore, American direct contact with the Gaxag had already, in a sense, damaged China’s sovereignty over Tibet, and it was the beginning of US interference in Tibetan affairs.

3. Policy Adjustment: Cause, Background and Effects; Why and How the US Changed Its Traditional Attitude Towards Tibet  (1945-1959).

Both the Cold War and China’s civil war began right after the end of World War II.  China’s situation changed rapidly.  It was quite obvious that Chiang Kai-shek’s regime would be soon overthrown and the Communist Party of China (i.e later CPC) would take power.  The Republic of China had been for some two decades been friendly towards the US, where people never seemed reluctant to see China strong and to enjoy its rights over Tibet.  However, Communist China was another thing.  Its close ties with Russia could make them the enemy of the US.  In this case, the US government would feel that it would be better for China lose Tibet. Thus, it was a time for the US to adjust its Tibetan policy.  In other words, the US began to consider whether she should, follow the line the British had taken and try to alienate Tibet from China.

In 1947, the Gaxag sent a Tibet Trade Mission to inland China as well as to the US and the UK.  All five members of the mission, led by Tsepon Shakabpa, held Tibetan passports and applied for visas to the countries above mentioned.  Because none of them had formally recognized Tibet as independent, diplomatic problems occurred.

Tsepon Shakabpa and his colleagues received British visas to Hong Kong on their Tibetan passports, and visas to visit inland China on their Chinese passports, but had nothing from the US before they left India.  However, the US Consulate in Hong Kong issued them with visas to the US later.

This “visa” event shocked and embarrassed the Chinese Government.  On July 12, 1948, Ye Gong-chao, the Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued a statement and made inquiries to the American Embassy.  Apart from confirming Chinese claims over Tibet, Ye also asked the US Government to clarify whether giving these visas to Tibetans was a mistake made by the US Consular office in Hong Kong, or an indication that the US Government was contemplating a change in its Tibetan policy.  Meanwhile, Dr. Wellington Koo, the Chinese Ambassador to America, was instructed to call on Secretary of State General George Marshall to seek clarification.  Now, the Americans were in a dilemma—any declaration that would please Nanking would certainly depress Lhasa.  After some consideration, the US decided to satisfy the former.  The Chinese Minister Tan Shao-hwa was told, at a meeting on 28 July, by the State Department, that the United States had “no intention of acting in a manner to call into question China’s de jure sovereignty over Tibet.”  On the other hand, the Americans did not forget to remind Nanking to “appreciate that the fact that it (China) exerts no de facto authority over Tibet is [the] root cause of [the] situation.”[2]  Eventually, the scheduled meeting between Tsepon Shakabpa and President Truman was cancelled on Dr. Wellington Koo’s request, because Tsepon Shakabpa refused to let the ambassador accompany the Tibetans to meet the President.

After his visit to Europe, Tsepon Shakabpa made his way back to Lhasa with empty hands—neither America nor Britain promised to recognize Tibetan independence, nor did they even promise to consider the matter in the future.

Only one year later, on October 1st, 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed.  Political and geographical considerations encouraged Mao Tsetung, the Chairman of the CPC to choose a peaceful way to realize Tibet liberation.  The invitations were sent to Lhasa to urge the Gaxag to send its delegates for negotiations in Beijing.

A multilateral game concerning Tibet began.

In Americans’ eyes, China was lost.  Definitely they did not want to see Tibet fall into communist China’s hands.  However, unlike India, which is adjacent to Tibet, and Britain, which had a long history of contacts with Tibet, the Americans lacked the effective access and reason to support the Gaxag in its claim of independence.  Moreover, both Russia and Taiwan, which was then controlled by Chiang Kai-shek, made it impossible to reach a solution favorable to the US after discussions in the United Nations on a complex issue like Tibet.  Should the Americans say Tibet is not a part of China, Taiwan would not agree, let alone Russia.  India would undoubtedly feel happy to see no PLA (Peoples’ Liberation Army) soldiers near its border, yet it was not easy for it, as a newly independent republic and a nonaligned country, to openly claim some rights in Tibet and to stand with the US.  Britain had just retreated from India and dumped all the responsibilities onto the Government of India.  Some British officers just wanted to let the US “ make the running ”.

The US had to do something.  The Gaxag had asked the US to help it fight against the CPC and it was hesitating to send its delegates to Beijing.  A religious, anti-communist Tibet might contribute to the Cold War.  Why not take this opportunity?  In early 1949, an official in the Department of State suggested that “if for example the Communists succeeded in controlling all of China or some equivalent far-reaching development takes place, we should be prepared to treat Tibet as independent to all intents and purpose ”.[3]  It is not clear at what level the US Government had considered this suggestion; however, it did take some steps to undermine the negotiations between the Gaxag and the newly founded Chinese central Government. 

Several factors encumbered American’s efforts. The first was that the Government of India did not want to cooperate with the US. New Delhi “would object to any initiative by another power, particularly the U.S., to extend military aid to Tibet.”  The second was that Britain just wanted to wash its hands of the whole affair. London told Washington: “we…considered that any attempt to intervene in Tibet would be impractical and unwise.  We have no interest in the area sufficiently strong to justify the certain risks involved in our embroiling ourselves with the Chinese on this question….”

Having got no cooperation from either India or Britain, the US could do nothing at this stage but pay lip service to the Gaxag. After losing the Changdu campaign, Tibetan delegates arrived in Beijing and signed the Seventeen-Point Agreement (The Agreement of the Central Government and the local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, 1951).  The US had tried to persuade the 14th Dalai Lama not to sign the Agreement, and after the signing, still encouraged him to denounce it.  America’s Tibetan policy at that time had obviously changed to split Tibet from China.  In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled from Tibet and began his life in exile. 

Since the 1950’s, the CIA took responsibility for carrying out American Tibetan policy and started to train Tibetans to use radios, maps and rifles, then airdropped them back into Tibet, despite the fact that Tibet is an area located far away from America and over which the CIA’s own government had “at no time raised the question ” regarding its status as Tibet among “the areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China”.[4]  Because of American intrigues and inducements, the life of the Tibetans was disturbed by the separatists throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.

All the US had done was not for Tibetan people, but for their own interests in the cold war.  Just as the remarks written by Prof. Tom Grunfeld, a rather straightforward American scholar:

“All the indications are that the CIA and Indians understood full well that the Tibetan rebellion had no chance of success or even of causing any major disruption to the Chinese.  The Government of the United States was only interested in harassing China’s rulers….”

To sum up, the so-called “Tibetan issues”, most importantly the sovereignty problem of Tibet, were created by the Western powers, especially when America entered the scene.  This influence was particularly strong after World War II.  America’s Tibetan policy changed with time and was based on self-interest, and was subject to its overall China policy.

To put it briefly, at different periods the US needed a different China, as well as a different Tibet.  During the period of the “Open Door” policy, America wanted to see an integrated China, not being divided by other powers; then, it was all right to let Tibet be part of China.  During World War II, America helped China win the war against the Japanese; China’s claim over Tibet was not questioned by America.  However, during the period of the Cold War, especially when the Republic of China was “lost” in 1949, America hoped to contain China, to cause turmoil and possible disintegration.  So its attitude towards Tibet changed.

At any time, when talking over Tibetan issues, America’s first concern is not Tibet but China.  The changing path of US Tibetan policy can be well observed in this way.  No one is sure in what direction this will develop in the future; however, it will definitely be subject, as before, to the overall American policy towards China.



[1] FRUS, 1942, China, p.71, Memorandum by the Chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs (Hanmilton): China’s War Potential: Estimate, Jun 17, 1942.

[2] USFR, 693.0031 Tibet/7-2648, memorandum of conversation of J. F. Melby, second secretary, U.S. Embassy in China, with George Yeh, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs; dated 26 July1948. From Goldstein, Melvyn C;1989; A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951, The Demise of the Lamaist State; India edition 1993; Published by Indian Book Company; p.590.

[3] FRUS, 1949, vol. IX, p. 1065, Memorandum by Miss Ruth E. Bacon of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs to the Chief of the Division of China AffairsSprouse, April 12, 1949.

[4] FRUS, 1943, China, p. 630, The Department of State to the British Embassy, May 15, 1943.

   

HIGHLIGHTS

During World War II, the US established the famous air transport route known as the “Hump”, during which the aircraft flew through Tibetan airspace.  Thus, the issue of Tibetan independence, which never existed before Europeans came to Asia, became unavoidably connected with the Western powers.  

Since American hegemony has dominated the Western world for more than half a century, the viewpoints of the United States and its policies towards Tibet are an important key to the issue. 

Although American influence on Tibet came later than that of Russia and Britain, it increased after World War II, when the Cold War began and a group of leaders from the Gaxag (the local Tibetan Government) asked the US Government to support their claim for independence. It continued to increase after 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet and established his Government-in-exile in India.

Nowadays, the US is in the forefront of Western support for the Dalai Lama, although it has never officially recognized the Tibetan Government-in-exile. It seems clear that the issue of Tibetan independence cannot be properly examined without considering this American influence.  

Yet, very few books have narrated clearly the story of American involvement in Tibetan issues—how did the US develop its Tibetan policy?  What were the background and aims of this policy?  When did the US start to take a hand in Tibet?  Why did it do so, and how did American Tibetan policy develop?

In order to trace the historical process and to analyze US involvement in Tibet from the perspective of Sino-US relations, one should pay attention to the period from the 1880’s to the 1970’s, starting with William Woodville Rockhill (the first American to travel through the Tibetan areas, during which he interviewed the 13th Dalai Lama and wrote to the then US president about Tibet), ending with Richard Nixon (the first US president who visited Beijing and met Chairman Mao). 

The author prefers to leave the later decades untouched, mainly because the archives, both in Chinese and in English, about that period are, at present, still classified and inaccessible.

 

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