Did Britain Just Sell Tibet? — An Op-ed from Robert Barnett

“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

In a New York Times op-ed from last week, Robert  Barnett, author of Lhasa: Streets with Memories, criticizes Britain’s recent decision to recognize Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China. This decision represents a change in British policy, which has previously viewed Tibet as having a “special position” within China.

As Barnett notes, it is speculated that this change in policy was a trade-off to help secure more help from China during the financial crisis. The Chinese government recognizes it as such and the International Herald Leader, a government paper wrote that the financial crisis “has made it impossible for the [West] not to consider the ‘cost problem’ in continuing to ‘aid Tibetan independence and anger China.'”

In the days since the change in British policy, China has become even more strident in their denunciations of Tibet’s independence movement and talks between China and the Dalai Lama are now seen as being jeopardized. Moreover, even as the implications of Britain’s decision are already being felt, the long-term aftershocks might very well be even more significant:

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.

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