Reassessing Tibet Policy

By Grunfeld, A. Tom | Foreign Policy in Focus, April 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Reassessing Tibet Policy


Grunfeld, A. Tom, Foreign Policy in Focus


The flight of the 17th Karmapa Lama from Tibet to India on the eve of the millenium catapulted Tibet back into world headlines. This has created an opportunity for both China and the U.S. to reassess their policies toward Tibet.

Tibet's status has been intertwined with China since the 7th century through marriages, wars, and treaties. Mongol conquests in the 13th century made Tibet part of a Mongol-ruled Chinese state, and four centuries later the ethnic Manchu Q'ing dynasty further incorporated Tibet into China. In 1912 the 13th Dalai Lama unilaterally declared independence but two years later indicated his willingness to sign a treaty granting Chinese "suzerainty" over both "Inner Tibet" and "Outer Tibet," establishing direct rule over the former and leaving the latter autonomous. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reestablished strong central government in 1949, Tibet was regarded as politically "integral" with China but in fact so autonomous that Beijing insisted on an incorporation "treaty" to preempt any claims of independence. Yet the CCP refrained from stamping out feudalism and theocratic rule. Twice in the 1950s, Mao Zedong assured the Dalai Lama that China would make no further inroads against de facto Tibetan autonomy. This policy, however, applied only to Outer Tibet, which was later renamed the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Other ethnic Tibetan areas, known as Amdo and Kham (Inner Tibet), underwent political transformation.

This process of integration sparked rebellion, and minor insurrections in Kham/Sichuan turned into open revolt by 1956. Support soon came from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was eager to destabilize the communist government. Chinas suppression of a 1959 revolt forced the Dalai Lama and 50-60,000 Tibetans into exile. Beijing then subjected the TAR to political and social integration, ending Lhasa's autonomous rule. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards, both Chinese and Tibetan, engaged in wholesale destruction of almost every religious building in Tibet, paralleling antireligious campaigns throughout China. From exile, the Dalai Lama oversaw refugee resettlement and guerrilla warfare--although he officially renounced all violence. CIA support encouraged insurgent Tibetans to continue their war for independence, but the CIA was more interested in harassing communist China than in promoting Tibetan independence. Following the 1971 visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the U.S. cut off its support to the Tibetan resistance. The Tibetan rebellion quickly dissipated; after 15 years, the Tibetans had been unable to create a sustainable, freestanding military force.

By the late 1970s, China began relaxing its grip on Tibet. …

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