by Michael van Walt van Praag & Miek Boltjes

SAN FRANCISCO: China’s aggressive behaviour towards India and Bhutan, its expansionism in the South China Sea, and its bullying and interference in Nepal, Mongolia, and Southeast Asia, all accompanied by a sense of entitlement are directly related to how the international community has treated and still treats China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet, write two Dutch international law and conflict resolution experts with extensive knowledge on Tibet. February 13 was ‘Tibetan Independence Day’.

China has occupied Tibet against the will of the Tibetan people for nearly three generations now. Its sovereignty claim to Tibet has no legal basis and rests solely on a self-serving historical narrative. This narrative is Sino-centric, part inaccurate and highly misleading. But it is so persistently and forcefully pushed by Beijing, that the world has gradually bought into it and today largely treats Tibet as China’s internal affair, beyond its purview. We have become passive bystanders to an unfolding tragedy and, as a result of our governments’ appeasement on Tibet, China has become an entitled bully, aggressively pursuing strategic and territorial expansion.

The world has grown largely silent on Tibet. Governments are self-censoring to accommodate Beijing’s self-proclaimed “sensitivities” in the hope this will serve their interests. But it is high time we took a hard look at the implications of our silence on the illegitimacy of China’s presence in Tibet and of not actively countering Beijing’s historical narrative on Tibet. Does it serve India’s interests?

Time To Speak Up

According to Beijing’s narrative, Tibet has been part of the Chinese multinational state “since antiquity”. In an attempt to legitimize the PRC’s current borders, the government in essence projects today’s Chinese state, with its current expansive territory, into the past, together with modern concepts of territorial statehood and sovereignty that were not applicable in Asia at the time. In the process, it retroactively appropriates foreign empires, most importantly the Mongol and Manchu Qing empires, designating them as “Chinese” and “China”. The Mongol and Qing empires were not Chinese. They were both Inner Asian, Mongol and Manchu, respectively. Their rulers conquered, occupied and ruled China and the Chinese for centuries as part of their vast dominions. Both exercised authority way beyond the Chinese populated territories and extended their reach to the Tibetan plateau. By retroactively appropriating these foreign empires and with it their territorial scope and reach as Chinese, the PRC has laid the foundation for its argument that it simply inherited sovereignty over Tibet from its predecessors.

Unfortunately, this narrative is not just for the history books. Beijing actively uses this narrative. Firstly, it has made negotiations with the Tibetans dependent on the Dalai Lama publicly accepting it. Secondly, it is putting a lot of pressure on all other governments not to contradict it. Beijing knows that it has no legitimacy to rule Tibet—that it simply took Tibet by force—and has created this narrative to solve that problem. If the world believes the narrative, the PRC’s mission will have been accomplished. Their first step is not to allow any contradiction of it. This is where we are today: self-censuring and silent.

We wrote Tibet Brief 20/20 to break this silence. Silence and absence of effective opposition to this narrative will over time turn into acquiescence, to buying into Beijing’s narrative. This will make any effort to resolve the Sino-Tibetan conflict fruitless. This is our main concern. For negotiations to have a chance, the world needs to be aware of the true nature of the conflict. And that has everything to do with the nature of historical relations Tibet had with its Asian neighbours, and with the question whether Tibet was or was not historically a part of China.

Tibet Was Historically Never Part of China And Is An Occupied Country Today

Careful historical examination reveals that Tibet was in fact historically never a part of China. This does not mean that Tibet was always an independent state in the modern sense of the term. To be sure, Tibet’s relations with the Mongol, Manchu and British empires entailed different forms of dependency. But none of those relations entailed the incorporation of Tibet into China.

Tibet was not a part of China during the Mongol empire and did not become a part of the Mongol ruled Yuan dynasty—contrary to popular belief. The Mongols did exercise authority over the Tibetans, but they did so separately from their conquest and rule of China and never joined the two. Tibet was not ruled by the Chinese Ming dynasty and was most certainly not incorporated into the Ming state. And the Manchu Qing emperor’s relations with the Dalai Lamas and Tibet also never resulted in Tibet’s incorporation into China. The Religio-Political relationship that did exist between them, known in Tibetan as chö-yön relations, need to be understood in the framework of the then applicable Tibetan Buddhist legal order and do not translate into modern-day territorial sovereignty. These conclusions are all corroborated in contemporaneous Mongolian, Manchu, Tibetan and Chinese sources. Finally, the Republic of China, which unilaterally claimed Tibet as part of that republic from its inception, was entirely unable to establish any authority in or over Tibet, leaving its claim completely empty. In reality, Tibet was an independent state de facto and de jure throughout the Republic of China period before the PRC was founded in 1949, and when the PLA invaded Tibet soon after.

All of this informs the nature of the Sino-Tibetan conflict, the legality of the PRC’s presence in Tibet, and the obligations of both the PRC and the international community under international law today.

Tibet is an occupied country and the Sino-Tibetan conflict is an international conflict, not China’s internal affair. Contrary to what Beijing wants us to believe, the PRC’s presence in Tibet is illegal because its armed invasion of Tibet in 1950 violated one of the most fundamental norms of modern international law—the prohibition of the use of force against another state. As a result, the PRC has not acquired sovereignty over Tibet since its invasion, and it is obligated under international law to end its occupation of Tibet and to permit the Tibetans to freely exercise their full right to self-determination.

But it’s not only the PRC which has obligations. All states do. International law stipulates that all of our governments have the duty not to recognize the illegal annexation of Tibet by China, and not to cooperate with or assist Beijing in any way in maintaining its unlawful rule of Tibet. All states are also required to refrain from aiding and abetting the exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources without due permission of the Tibetans, since those resources belong solely to the Tibetan people. And finally, our governments have the positive duty to help bring about an end to the occupation of Tibet and to permit and respect the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination.

Behaving accordingly is not only about upholding the rule of law for its own sake. It is a political and security imperative, in particular for India. Not speaking up about the illegality of China’s occupation of Tibet, or acting in ways that give credence to China’s claims to sovereignty there provide those claims and the PRC presence in Tibet with a semblance of legitimacy. This has tangible harmful consequences today.

In the first place, the current attitude of appeasement, self-censorship and silence by the international community is detrimental to the resolution of the Sino-Tibetan conflict. It takes away all incentive for the Chinese leadership to obtain legitimacy for the PRC’s presence in Tibet from the Tibetans through negotiations. There simply is no need. Even the governments that have been most concerned about the situation in Tibet have relegated the issue to the realm of cultural and religious rights, playing right into the PRC strategy of casting Tibetans simply as one of its ethnic and religious minorities with no standing to even discuss devolution of power.

Secondly, regional peace and security are threatened by the international community’s apathy. China’s aggressive behaviour towards India and Bhutan, its expansionism in the South China Sea, and its bullying and interference in Nepal, Mongolia, and Southeast Asia, all accompanied by a sense of entitlement, are in our opinion directly related to how the international community has treated and still treats China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet. Beijing has learned that it can get away with territorial expansion over time if it consistently pushes a self-serving historical narrative and punishes those who challenge it. The historical narrative the PRC has propagated on Tibet is complicated and has created a sufficient mix of confusion, acceptance and self-censorship to quell meaningful international questioning of China’s claim to sovereignty over Tibet and has also weakened the Tibetan movement itself. Beijing appears to be applying a similar strategy to prevent effective opposition to its occupation and militarization of islands in the South China Sea. And as for China’s territorial claims in Himalayan regions, these are directly tied to its claim to and presence in Tibet.

The PRC claims large swathes of land in India’s Northeast and Northwest. These claims led to war in 1962 and China’s aggressive posture today is increasing tensions on India’s northern borders. The validity of the PRC’s sovereignty claims to parts of India is directly and solely tied to Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Tibet, and therefore to the same historical narrative discussed above, and debunked in our book.

China contends that parts of Ladakh and Sikkim, and all of Arunachal Pradesh (which it calls South Tibet) belong to China, arguing that they historically belonged to Tibet or were subject to Tibet’s authority or influence. Because Tibet is and was historically part of China, the argument runs, these territories are also Chinese, and the PRC has the right to exercise its sovereignty there. China makes a similar claim to a part of Bhutan. A rejection of China’s claim to Tibet is, by its very nature, a rejection of its claim to Indian and Bhutanese territory. It is the clearest, strongest and most effective manner to invalidate China’s contention.

In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, the situation is particularly clear. That portion of the international boundary between India and Tibet was formally agreed upon between Tibet and Britain at Shimla in 1914. China refuses to accept that border because it contends that Tibet did not have the capacity to make treaties in 1914, since it was allegedly part of China. The Tibetan border with Arunachal Pradesh is legally firmly established as long as the Shimla agreement, which was explicitly confirmed by India upon its independence, stands. For India to take the position that Tibet is legally part of China today implies one of two things. It either implies that the Government of India maintains that Tibet was already part of China in 1914—which would invalidate India’s claim to the border as established at Shimla and legitimize Beijing’s claim to Arunachal or parts of it. Or it implies that although India considers the Shimla agreement as validly concluded, India recognizes as lawful the PRC’s unlawful invasion and annexation of an independent Tibet 70 years ago, which would squarely violate a fundamental norm of international law.

The self-censorship and silence on the illegitimacy of China’s presence in Tibet that has become policy in many parts of the world, renders India highly vulnerable. It robs India of its strongest argument regarding its sovereign rights in Arunachal Pradesh and encourages the PRC to extend its historical narrative regarding Tibet to ethnically and culturally kindred regions all along the Himalayas.

The Need To Course Correct

In order to achieve a negotiated resolution of the Sino-Tibetan conflict and end the occupation of Tibet, certain things need to be in place, for which the international community’s engagement is imperative. The engagement we call for is entirely in line with the legal obligations and responsibilities of states. It does not constitute impermissible interference in the PRC’s internal affairs, but does require a significant course correct by many governments. Our recommendations are not end goals, but preliminary steps to create the conditions for effective policy change. Our first recommendation is to treat the situation in Tibet, Sino-Tibetan relations and the Sino-Tibetan conflict as falling squarely within the international community’s, and therefore every government’s purview and responsibility and not as China’s internal affair. This includes treating the Sino-Tibetan conflict as an international conflict in need of resolution.

A starting point would be to consistently use language reflecting that. This means, for example, referring to Tibet as an occupied country and to India’s northern border with Tibet as the Indo-Tibetan border and not the Sino-Indian border. Self-censoring has resulted in the frequent use of the euphemistic, non-committal and meaningless expression “the Tibet issue”. This is not helpful and can be harmful. Our language must convey that we are dealing here with an unresolved international conflict, not a Chinese domestic matter. We should also stop parroting Beijing’s choice terminology, including its reference to Tibetans as a “minority” instead of a people or nation. Such terminology reinforces the Chinese narrative and denies the Tibetan people their proper status and implicitly their right to self-determination.

Here we are not just addressing governments and their policymakers and diplomats. The impact of language and how it is used in the press, television and other media is critical, as it largely determines how audiences understand China’s presence and actions in Tibet, and its claims to other territories in the Himalayas.

Being mindful of using appropriate and truthful language may sound frivolous. It is not. Consider this: Beijing diligently uses the language and arguments of international law to persuade the world that its forceful incorporation of Tibet is lawful. It consistently deploys a carefully selected vocabulary when talking about Tibet and Tibetans. This vocabulary not only fits its historical narrative, it is chosen because it assigns legal consequences when that vocabulary is adopted by others. This is, to a large extent, happening today. And that is a hugely underestimated real problem that can only be solved by not adopting China’s vocabulary and by being mindful to use language that expresses the true nature of the conflict instead.

Treating the Sino-Tibetan conflict as an unresolved international conflict also requires rejecting Beijing’s “core interest” trap, and with it the imposition by the PRC of rules of behaviour that dictate what governments must believe, what their officials must say, and who they must not meet. It requires being guided, instead, by facts and law, including international legal principles and norms. China has designated Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang as its “core interests”. It demands that its positions and interests regarding these regions must be accepted and respected by all governments as a prerequisite for friendly bilateral relations. Most recently, Beijing added the South China Sea to its list of core interests. The Chinese government uses this mechanism to instil fear of angering China, which has led many governments to comply with its demands and to self-censor.

India has a special interest in Tibet and China’s policies there, ranging from the militarization of Tibet to the settlement of large numbers of Chinese in Tibet and the damming of Asia’s great rivers there. India has populations in its Himalayan regions that are culturally, ethnically and religiously close to the Tibetans. It needs to contend with China’s aggressive behaviour on its very borders. And India shelters large numbers of Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. In fact, we might say that Tibet, as also the whole Himalayan region, is very much India’s core interest.

Governments have an obligation under international law to help resolve the Sino-Tibetan conflict. What if India were to publicly extend an open invitation to both parties to meet and negotiate in India, or if it were to offer its mediation, facilitation or good offices? Apart from promoting peace in the region, Delhi would uphold the rule of law and send a signal to the entire international community that the conflict is not settled and remains a matter of international concern and responsibility.

The second recommendation is to actively counter the PRC’s false and misleading historical narrative on Tibet, which is part of its annexation strategy. Importantly, as we just pointed out, not contesting this narrative also has repercussions beyond Tibet, since it validates and strengthens Beijing’s territorial claims in northern India and makes it very hard to challenge related narratives deployed by Beijing to lay claim to other territories, such as those in the South China Sea. Contesting China’s narrative would be of critical importance also to India’s Himalayan neighbours, whose borders are also being questioned by Beijing.

One pointed way for India to contest China’s narrative on Tibet is to make unambiguous reference to the validity of the Shimla Agreement. It could do so, for example, by reiterating and republishing its position as stated in Pandit Nehru’s 1960 communication to the PRC. Our third recommendation concerns the non-recognition of the illegal annexation of Tibet. Non-recognition of sovereignty over territory taken by force is a fundamental norm of international law, which follows directly from the prohibition of the use of force against states, a cornerstone of the UN Charter.

Many governments succumb to Chinese pressure to state that they consider Tibet to be a part of China. If they can be persuaded to stop doing so, as India recently has, this will give efforts to resolve the Sino-Tibetan conflict a fighting chance. And now is the time to do it. The world is waking up to the realization that we are actually paying a price for compliance with Beijing’s demands. We have contributed not only to China’s rise, but also to its bullying. The only way to stop bullying is to collectively no longer comply with the bully’s demands, first and foremost where those demands clearly violate international legal norms as well as moral ones.

This is finally starting to happen. More and more governments are pushing back on Chinese demands and pressure tactics. This new climate creates new opportunities to speak truth to power and build alliances to bring about change.