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Documents open window on early US Tibet policy, and its mistakes

posted Apr 21, 2013, 12:21 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Todd Stein (ICT), April 15, 2013.

 “For much of the past century, US relations with Tibet have been characterized by kowtowing to the Chinese and hollow good wishes for the Dalai Lama” begins a piece [1] this week in the New York Review of Books by journalist Jonathan Mirsky.

In a general sense, this appears sadly true. However, a little detour into the historical record reveals that, indeed, the Tibet issue has come a long way from the days of being shoved under the rug, to where it is now brought up in every major U.S.-China bilateral meeting, and is even cited as an example of U.S.-EU cooperation on strategic issues in Asia.

As evidence I cite a new database of cables from U.S. State Department from the 1973-1976 period. The database was done by the Wikileaks organization and called the “Kissinger Cables,” [2] after the U.S. Secretary of State during that period.

(First, let me recommend Mr. Mirsky’s article, entitled Tibet: The War We Cancelled. [3] It looks back at the CIA program to aid Tibetan insurgents in the 1950s and 1960s, and discusses how the Tibetans and U.S.government had different agendas as well as distinct cognitive perceptions of its value. The topic of the CIA’s history in Tibet has been covered in this space from time [4] to time [5], and was the topic of a recent ICT Lecture [6] with author and CIA veteran Ken Knaus on his book [7] on the subject.)

I leave the task of a thorough search of the database to others. But a spot check of the 210 entries that came up under the word search “Tibet” provides some interesting nuggets:

1. Dalai Lama to the U.S., maybe? — February 26, 1974 [8]. This cable references the request of Tenzin Tethong, then the Representative at the Office of Tibet in New York, to confirm that there would be no objection by the State Department to a visit of the Dalai Lama to the U.S. The response is that there likely would not be an objection, since it would be for purely religious reasons, but expresses the wish that the visit be postponed several months “since Dalai Lama target of PRC criticism in current domestic campaign.”

Observation: This door didn’t stay open (see below). It is unclear whether this refers to the political campaign of the U.S. midterm elections in 1974, or specifically to a Chinese campaign against the Dalai Lama. If the former, it is interesting that the Chinese claim that U.S. governmental support for the Dalai Lama is merely a facet of pandering to domestic politics – the opposite of the worry expressed four decades ago.

2. Tibet: know nothing, see nothing, hear nothing — July 3, 1974 [9]. U.S. Liason Officer David Bruce (equivalent of an Ambassador, but prior to formal U.S. ties with the People’s Republic of China) appears to take pride in his ignorance of the situation in Tibet. In this cable, Bruce asks the Department to issue a “categorical denial” of a journalist’s claim that he had issued a report on the “unrevealed situation in overrun Tibet.” Bruce writes: “I have never visited Tibet, which is totally unknown to me except for its geographical location. I have never discussed it or matters regarding it, with Chinese officials nor any one else since I came to Peking, nor have I read any articles dealing with its problems.”

Observation: It is disheartening to read that America’s top diplomat is willfully ignorant of a large portion of area, which China claims to be part of the country, for which he is responsible. This is no longer the case. Today, the U.S. Embassy makes great effort to learn what is going on inside Tibet (in part because Congress has directed it to), but faces the obstacle of Chinese refusal to grant them access. Current Ambassador Gary Locke did visit a Tibetan town in Ngaba prefecture last fall, although it had to be done quietly. It is notable that Bruce insists that a denial of the report be made, rather than state that such a report never existed.

3. Dalai Lama to the U.S., no. — September 27, 1975 [10]. The Chinese Liaison Office (embassy) in Washington had been demanding that the U.S. government force the closure of the Office of Tibet (government in exile) in New York, as well as prevent a Tibetan song and dance troupe from visiting the U.S. The Chinese side claimed “the Office of Tibet was in violation of the spirit of the Shanghai Communique. The State Department responded that they could not do so, as Office of Tibet had been properly registered under U.S. law, and that “legal and constitutional restrictions” prevented the government from acceding to the PRC protests. However, the State Department official took the effort to explain that the Department did not endorse the Office of Tibet. The official also responded that the song and dance troupe had met all the requirements of U.S. visa law.

The State Department official made clear to the Chinese side that “we consider it inappropriate for [the Dalai Lama] to come [to the U.S.] and have done everything we can do to discourage the prospective sponsors.” Later, he reiterated “that our good intentions are reflected in our handling of the proposed visit by the Dalai Lama.”

Observation: This cable demonstrates that no polite denial to China comes without a corresponding kowtow. Note how the position of the Department appears to have changed since February 1974, when the Department suggested that a visit by the Dalai Lama seemed possible.

Regarding the Shanghai Communique, see my comment at the end of this article.

4. Tibet as a part of China — October 14, 1975 [11]. A State Department spokesman is quizzed by a reporter about the Chinese claims that the Office of Tibet and dance troup is a “flagrant violation” of the Shanghai Communique. The spokesman repeats the legal reasons previously given, and rejects the notion that the U.S. is in violation.

The spokesman then states that “none of our policies or actions is based on the premise that Tibet is not part of China.” This piques the journalists’ interest, as he responds, “prior to recent years I thought that our attitude always was one that China had suzerainty but not sovereignty over Tibet. Has that been changed while I had my head turned?” The spokesman sticks by his statement.

Observation: While I have not discovered the definitive moment when the U.S. formally declared that Tibet was part of China, this discussion has to be a marker. It should also be noted that the current written U.S. formulation [12] is that the “United States recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties in other provinces as part of the People’s Republic of China,” rather than just “China.” This is important for historical reasons, as it remains agnostic as to the status of Tibet prior to the 1950s. I tend to regard statements like the spokesman’s that Tibet is part of “China” as shorthand verbally expressed, and not a departure from the written position.

5. China: interfering in our internal affairs — October 20, 1975 [13]. This cable summarizing press coverage of a Kissinger trip to China includes quote in an article, “PRC’s deploring Tibetan refugee activities in U.S. shows continuing profound misunderstanding how U.S. constitutional democracy works.”

Observation: This dynamic continues today. Recall the 2012 episode [14] when Chinese diplomats tried to get a pro-Tibet and pro-Taiwan mural taken down in Oregon.

6. U.S. sees through Chinese propaganda on Tibet — January 14, 1976 [15]. This cable, summarizing an article on a Chinese author, seen as a surrogate for Beijing’s position, who “launched into glowing report on life in Tibet,” analyzed that her effort really meant to cover up “serious security problems there.” It posits that Tibet “could be PRC’s foremost internal problem area.”

Observation: The more things change, the more they stay the same…

7. Early U.S. visitor witnesses “occupied” Tibet — October 1, 1976 [16]. Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger visited Tibet a part of a trip to China, which was accurately deemed “unusual.” The cable said that Schlesinger reported that, “Propaganda stressing Chinese solidarity with minority nationalities is cover for problems arising out of Han efforts to control tribal cultures. Tibet is nothing more than occupied territory and so-called autonomous regions little better than Chinese provinces. … Lhasa gave him the impression that Tibet was an occupied area pure and simple.”

Observation: While not surprising to Tibet observers, it is notable that his visit came only three years before the first of the “fact finding delegations” by Tibetan exiles, in 1979. Chinese authorities were convinced that the Tibetan exile visitors (including the Dalai Lama’s brother) would not be welcomed, presuming that the Tibetan population would have grown to love the Chinese Communists that had “liberated” them from their feudal past. Instead, the local Tibetans embraced the delegation because of their proximity to the Dalai Lama (and the repressive conditions they lived under). Schlesinger’s observation foresaw the reception the exile Tibetans would get.

Flash forward to today. Yes, kowtowing still goes on, and the Tibet issue is still handled by the U.S.diplomats as a highly sensitive matter vis-à-vis relations with China. But there is much deeper, broader, and active engagement by the U.S. government on the Tibet issue today. The Dalai Lama meets with the President (although not in the Oval Office). Officials from the Tibetan exile government meet with the State Department (although not publicly). Thanks to Congress, there are seven programs in the budget to aid Tibetans inside Tibet and in exile. And Tibet is in the briefing book every time a U.S. President, Secretary of State, or other senior official goes to Beijing.

Note on the Shanghai Communique: This 1972 document [17], negotiated between Nixon and Mao, paved the way for normalized relations by the end of the decade, vice the Republic of China in Taiwan. It served to codify the United States’ “one China” policy which provided that mainland and Taiwan were not to be considered distinct entities. As such, in the Communique each nation agreed that they “should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.”

Tibet was never mentioned by name in the document. But in these “Kissinger cables,” you see how the Chinese are asserting, early on, that Tibet falls within their definition of the Shanghai Communique. I am not a historian of this era, so I stand to be corrected by an expert. But my sense is that the American side did little or nothing to express its understanding of the Communique in this area. In the interest of moving normalized relations forward, U.S. diplomats at the time ceded the ground to the Chinese to define unilaterally its territory and interests. And today we see the results of that negligence, as Chinese authorities have turned Tibet into a police state, blacked out from the rest of world, in pursuit of their inviolate “territorial integrity.” Further, one can argue that this cession gave license to Beijing’s contemporary territorial ambitions in the South China and East China Seas.



















Reprinted by permission. Originally published at

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