Britain's suzerain remedy
Nov 6th 2008
From The Economist print edition
To control Tibet’s future, China extends control over its past
IT WAS an early-21st-century solution to an early-20th-century problem. On October 29th, at the end of a short statement published on his ministry’s website, Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, quietly junked his country’s long-standing position on Tibet. Uniquely among the world’s countries, Britain had not explicitly recognised Chinese sovereignty over the region. Rather it acknowledged its “suzerainty”.
Quite what the term means has been obscure even to British diplomats. But what it does not mean—that China enjoys full sovereignty over China and has done so for centuries—has been enough to irk Chinese officials. It bolstered claims that Tibet was not part of China until its troops occupied it in 1951.
Mr Miliband describes Britain’s old position as “based on the geopolitics of the time”—ie, the early 1900s, when British adventurers were entering Tibet from India and the Qing empire was disintegrating in China. He says this “anachronism” has “clouded” Britain’s ability to get its points across on Tibet: on the importance of respect for human rights and of greater Tibetan autonomy.
His officials say he has merely aligned Britain’s stance with that of its European Union partners and of America. They point out that even the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, argues not for Tibetan independence, but for a “middle way” of greater autonomy within China. But that, in fact, is rather reminiscent of some definitions of “suzerainty”. And the Dalai Lama has never admitted, as China would like, that Tibet has always been “an inalienable part of China”. Arguing about its past status, he has insisted, is beside the point.
Moreover, he has recently shown signs of exasperation with his 20-year pursuit of the middle way. With his envoys in Beijing this week for an eighth round of talks with China since 2002, the Dalai Lama has said his trust in China’s good faith is “thinning, thinning, thinning”. His conciliatory policies have faced mounting criticism from Tibetans since bloody riots in Tibet earlier this year. A meeting later this month in Dharamsala, his seat in northern India, is to review his exiled government’s stance.
Curiously, Mr Miliband’s statement does not, in so many words, recognise Chinese sovereignty. But officials say it means that, as far as Britain is concerned, “Tibet is part of China. Full stop.” For many Tibetans, however, the correct punctuation remains a question-mark.