The financial crisis is going to do more than increase unemployment, bankruptcy and homelessness. It is also likely to reshape international alignments, sometimes in ways that we would not expect.
As Western powers struggle with the huge scale of the measures needed to revive their economies, they have turned increasingly to China. Last month, for example, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, asked China to give money to the International Monetary Fund, in return for which Beijing would expect an increase in its voting share.
Now there is speculation that a trade-off for this arrangement involved a major shift in the British position on Tibet, whose leading representatives in exile this weekend called on their leader, the Dalai Lama, to stop sending envoys to Beijing — bringing the faltering talks between China and the exiles to a standstill.
The exiles’ decision followed an announcement on Oct. 29 by David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, that after almost a century of recognizing Tibet as an autonomous entity, Britain had changed its mind. Mr. Miliband said that Britain had decided to recognize Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China. He even apologized that Britain had not done so earlier.
Until that day, the British had described Tibet as autonomous, with China having a “special position” there. This formula did not endorse the Tibetan claim to independence. But it meant that in the British view China’s control over Tibet was limited to a condition once known as suzerainty, somewhat similar to administering a protectorate. Britain, alone among major powers, had exchanged official agreements with the Tibetan government before the Chinese takeover in 1951, so it could scarcely have said otherwise unless it was to vitiate those agreements.
After the People’s Republic of China joined the United Nations in 1971, British politicians refrained from referring to their country’s recognition of Tibet’s autonomy to avoid embarrassing Beijing. But that didn’t make it less significant. It remained the silent but enduring legal basis for 30 years of talks between the Dalai Lama and Beijing, in which the Tibetans have called only for autonomy and not independence — a position that a conference of Tibetan exiles in India reaffirmed on Saturday.
Mr. Miliband described the British position as an anachronism and a colonial legacy. It certainly emerged out of a shabby episode in colonial history, Francis Younghusband’s cavalier invasion of Tibet in 1903. But the British description of Tibet’s status in the era before the modern nation-state was more finely tuned than the versions claimed by Beijing or many exiles, and it was close to the findings of most historians.
Britain’s change of heart risks tearing up a historical record that frames the international order and could provide the basis for resolving China’s dispute with Tibet. The British government may have thought the issue of no significance to Britain’s current national interests and so did not submit it to public debate. But the decision has wider implications. India’s claim to a part of its northeast territories, for example, is largely based on the same agreements — notes exchanged during the Simla convention of 1914, which set the boundary between India and Tibet — that the British appear to have just discarded. That may seem minor to London, but it was over those same documents that a major war between India and China was fought in 1962, as well as a smaller conflict in 1987.
The British concession to China last month was buried within a public statement calling on Beijing to grant autonomy in Tibet, leading some to accuse the British government of hypocrisy. It is more worrying if it was a miscalculation. The statement was released two days before the Dalai Lama’s envoys began the eighth round of talks with Beijing on their longstanding request for greater autonomy, apparently because the British believed — or had been told — that their giveaway to Beijing would relax the atmosphere and so encourage China to make concessions to the Dalai Lama.
The result was the opposite. On Nov. 10, China issued a damning attack on the exile leader, saying his autonomy plan amounted to ethnic cleansing, disguised independence and the reintroduction of serfdom and theocracy. The only thing that China will henceforth discuss with the exiles is the Dalai Lama’s personal status, meaning roughly which luxury residence he can retire to in Beijing.
The official press in China has gleefully attributed European concessions on Tibet to the financial crisis. “Of course these European countries are at this time not collectively changing their tune because their conscience has gotten the better of them,” announced The International Herald Leader, a government-owned paper in Beijing, on Nov. 7. It added that the financial crisis “has made it impossible for them not to consider the ‘cost problem’ in continuing to ‘aid Tibetan independence’ and anger China. After all, compared to the Dalai, to as quickly as possible pull China onto Europe’s rescue boat is even more important and urgent.”
Britain’s concession could be China’s most significant achievement on Tibet since American support for Tibetan guerillas was ended before Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Including China in global decision-making is welcome, but Western powers should not rewrite history to get support in the financial crisis. It may be more than banks and failed mortgages that are sold off cheap in the rush to shore up ailing economies.
Robert Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia and the author of Lhasa: Streets With Memories.