Two years after Tibet participated as an
independent country in an Asian Relations Conference held to discuss the role of Asia in the post-war and post-colonial period, the Communist Chinese declared its intention to 'liberate' Tibet. And when on October 1, 1949, the Communists rose to power and established the new People's Republic of China, no time was lost in achieving assimilation of Tibet into the Chinese mainland. Till then Tibet had, to all purposes and intents, been an independent state.

Historical Background
Though Tibet's historical relations with China was marked at times by mutual recognition of authority and at other times by bid for military superiority, the fact that the two were distinctly independent countries finds expression in the inscriptions of a stone pillar erected as a treaty between the Tibetan Emperor Trisung Detsen Ralpachen and the Tang Emperor Mu-Zong in 821 AD.

The agreement, meant as a peace treaty to end almost two centuries of fighting, pronounced, 'Both Tibet and China shall keep the country and frontiers of which they now are in possession. The whole region to the east of that being the country of Great China and the whole region to the west being assuredly the country of Great Tibet, from either side of that frontier there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions, and no seizure of territory.' One of at least seven such bilateral treaties with China, this stone pillar still stands in front of the Jokhang cathedral in Lhasa, Tibet's capital.

The premises of relations between Tibet and China changed from that of military hostility and strategic one-upmanship to mutual interdependence in the early 13th century when under the patronage of the Mongol king, Godan Khan, one Buddhist school achieved predominance and with that secular power over a unified Tibet. In return, the Tibetan Buddhist lama presided as an official priest over the Mongol king's court, besides exerting his religious influence to his patron's political advantage over the peoples living within, and also outside, China's territorial boundaries. This basis of co-existence known as 'Chos-yon' or Priest-Patron relationship endured throughout the Yuan Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty, and the Qing dynasty. The subsequent decline of the Manchu dynasty and a growing threat from Nationalist Chinese to the eastern Tibetan frontier, however, led to the 13th Dalai Lama declaring Tibet's independence and the Tibetan troops successfully driving away the last of the Chinese from the Tibetan soil.

Elaborating on the 'Chos-yon' relationship, Tsering Shakya, the noted Historian, writes in his celebrated book, Dragon in the Land of Snow, 'This traditional relationship between Tibet and China was set within the political culture of the Sino-Tibetan world, where the meaning of the relationship was well understood by the participants. When this socio-cultural and political environment was altered first by the arrival of Western colonial powers in Asia; and second by the transformation of the traditional Chinese Confucian-dominated polity towards a more occidental type of political system which produced a Republican China and the growth of Chinese nationalism, the traditional and established relationship became problematic.'

Following the 13th Dalai Lama's declaration of Tibet's independence in 1913, Tibet enjoyed three decades of total independence until the Communist Chinese once again stoked the embers of hostility and set in motion a series of military skirmishes along Tibet's border to the east. All this while, realising that Tibet's interest lied in opening up to the world order and possessing a strong military built-up, the 13th Dalai Lama had been making efforts to strengthen Tibet. But his vision of a strong and open Tibet was cut short by the Communist Chinese full-scale invasion of Tibet in 1950.

Communist Invasion And Global Indifference
In a two-pronged tactic, Communists stepped up pressure on the weak Tibetan defence system in Kham and Amdo in the east, besides pretending to be working towards a negotiated solution for incorporating Tibet into Chinese territory. While the former was meant to intimidate the Tibetan govt from even trying to militarily resist their aggression, the latter was a diplomatic facade designed to render a certain degree of legitimacy to their aggressive intentions.

But when it transpired to Beijing that the Tibetan government in Lhasa was unwilling to compromise on Tibet's independence, it resorted to full-scale invasion to whip the Lhasa government into submission. The Government of India's hesitation in allowing the Tibetan delegation led by Shakabba to proceed towards Beijing to hold negotiations with the Communists only hastened the military aggression. In the face of Chinese show of might on October 6, 1950, the primitive defence systems in Chamdo collapsed with little resistance. Soon after, more than 40,000 Chinese troops were stationed in Chamdo, fully poised to march into Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

Faced with indifference from India and Britain, despite its repeated appeals for help, the only way out for Tibet now was to seek the UN intervention. But lack of initiative on the part of India, Britain and the US in placing Tibet's appeal on the UN agenda, coupled with the Indian government's misplaced hope that China was really eager on a peaceful solution to Tibet issue, resulted in the UN hearing on Tibet issue being postponed. As Tsering Shakya put it, 'As the Korean issue took over the United Nations' agenda, Tibet's appeal faded into obscurity. This dispelled the hopes that the Tibetans had placed in international support: there was no alternative but to seek negotiations with China.'

The Ill-fated Agreement
It was around this time that the 15-year-old Dalai Lama, who had just assumed power and moved to southern Tibet in case developments warranted his escape into India, delegated two Tibetan officials to negotiate with the Communists. Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, the governor of Chamdo who had been forced to surrender, was to head the Tibetan negotiating team. The delegation had been given strict instruction not to accept Cinese sovereignty over Tibet and that it should refer all important points back to Dromo for consultation. For that purpose a direct wireless communications was to be established between Beijing and Dromo.

Soon after the Tibetan team's arrival in Beijing, the Chinese government presented them a proposal, which was the same as the one issued by the South-West Military Command soon after the fall of Chamdo. This proposal was later to become the basis of what is today known as '17-Point Agreement'.

Finding the Chinese government uncompromising on demanding Tibetan acceptance of Chinese sovereignty, the Tibetan delegation refused to sign the 'agreement'. This was however met with threats of personal harm and a full-scale take over of Tibet by PLA. When the Tibetan delegation expressed hesitation in complying with the demands of the Agreement, they were warned by the Chinese, 'It is up to you to choose whether Tibet would be liberated peacefully or by force. It is only a matter of sending a telegram to PLA group to recommence their march into Tibet.'

It was under such an atmosphere of coercion that the Tibetan delegation was forced to sign the 'Agreement' on 23 May, 1951. The delegation warned the Chinese that they were signing only in their personal capacity and had no authority to bind either the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government to the 'agreement'. None of this deterred the Chinese govt from proceeding with a signing ceremony and announcing to the world that an 'agreement' had been concluded for the 'peaceful liberation of Tibet'. Even the seals affixed to the document were forged by the Chinese government to give it the necessary semblance of authenticity.

A clear shock and alarm awaited the Tibetan government when the Tibetan delegation dispatched a telegram to Dromo. The Dalai Lama described his initial reaction to the announcement in his autobiography My Land and My People: 'We first came to know of it from a broadcast which Ngabo made on Peking Radio. It was a terrible shock when we heard the terms of it. We were appalled at the mixture of Communist cliches, vainglorious assertions which were completely false, and bold statements which were only partly true and the terms were far worse and more oppressive than anything we had imagined.'

Two months later the Dalai Lama and his retinue left Dromo for Lhasa, still hopeful of convincing China to agree to re-negotiation on the issue of Tibet's independence. But having already made its military control over Tibet virtually complete, China refused to reopen negotiations and the Dalai Lama had effectively lost the ability to either accept or reject any Tibet-China 'agreement'.

However, once the Tibetan leader had escaped to India and was in a position to express himself freely again, the Dalai Lama on 20 June 1959 formally repudiated the 'Seventeen-Point Agreement', as having been 'thrust upon Tibetan Government and people by the threats of arms'.

Contemporary Relevance of the Agreement
In as much as the Dalai Lama's repudiation of the 'agreement' was influenced by his conviction in the Tibetan people's right to independence, it was also a culmination of China's own blatant violation of the spirit of the agreement which had otherwise guaranteed the safeguarding of existing political system in Tibet. It was therefore the Chinese who had violated the principles of the agreement by concentrating PLA troops in Tibet and by enforcing rampant interference with the political authority of the Dalai Lama and religious practice of the Tibetan people. And by invalidating an agreement, the like of which China had never signed with any of its minority nationalities, the Tibetan leader had clearly reasserted Tibet's right to independence.

During the four-decades of peaceful attempt at rapprochement with the Chinese government, Tibet's exiled leader has however stepped down his demand from that of outright independence to genuine autonomy for the whole of Tibet, including the three traditional provinces. Today the Dalai Lama remains committed to finding a solution to the Tibetan problem through negotiation with the Chinese leadership.

In fact, the basis of his policy, known as middle-way approach, is not much different from the original spirit of the '17-Point Agreementí which, though acceding control over foreign affairs and defence to China, guaranteed internal autonomy to the Tibetans. Analysts conclude that the 'one country two systems' China accorded to Hong Kong following its reversion from British rule has its inspiration in the 'Seventeen-Point Agreement'.

If the Chinese government has, as they claim, afforded a special privilege to the Tibetans, hitherto denied to all its minority nationalities, by drawing up the '17-Point Agreement', it stands binding on them to respect the principles of that agreement and negotiate with the Dalai Lama along the lines of his middle-way approach policy. It would do good for China's interest to maintain 'the unity of motherland' if it saw the wisdom of according a similar status as that given to Hong Kong to Tibet. The solution might lie in the contemporary history of Sino-Tibetan conflict. It might in fact be the '17-Point Agreement'.

by Topden Tsering

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