What if China invaded Mongolia?


Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer

To person

Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer, born in 1947, Professor of East Asian Politics at the Institute for East Asian Studies and at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen. His main research interests: political and social change in China, the political cultures of China, questions of nationality politics and various aspects of political and social development.

Tibet has always been a plaything for different world powers - from Great Britain to Russia to the People's Republic of China. However, the demands of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile for more autonomy or even independence have so far not been crowned with success, as historical stations show.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, 1938. License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (Federal Archives, Image 135-S-15-04-37 / Photographer: Schäfer, Ernst)

The legal status of Tibet before 1950

From 1720, Tibet had the status of an area associated with China. At that time, the Tibetans turned to the Chinese emperor with a request for military support against an invasion of the Djungarian Mongols. After their successful expulsion, Emperor Kang Xi signed a treaty with the Dalai Lama through which Tibet submitted to the protective power of China. It recognized the sovereignty of China, but the power to govern lay with the Dalai Lama. Tibet was thus in a state of suzerainty, but not sovereignty. That is, military security and foreign policy lay with the imperial court in Beijing, who in return undertook to grant Tibet every conceivable protection. Internal administration, however, lay with the Dalai Lama and his court, as was the traditional policy of the imperial court.

After that, settlement areas of non-Chinese peoples were not directly administered by Chinese officials. Rather, in areas in which the power and organizational structure of the tribal societies were still unbroken, indigenous leaders from the imperial court received hereditary titles and ranks within the Chinese hierarchy of officials. The "officials" created in this way exercised their powers under the supervision of Chinese "patrons". Since the lower officials in these regions also came from the ranks of the local leaders, the peoples or tribes thus integrated into the Chinese Empire did not feel the sovereignty of the imperial court directly. The imperial court only intervened directly when its sovereignty was questioned or tribes rebelled. Indirect administration, not military conquest, was characteristic of this policy. Accordingly, the agents of the Chinese imperial court in Tibet, the Ambane, were reluctant to intervene in the internal affairs of Tibet during the Qing Dynasty, although there was only a marginal military presence. However, from this it cannot be concluded that Tibet will be independent. Tibet had submitted to the sovereignty of Beijing and the Ambane were in control of the local administration.

However, this was not a static condition until the Chinese Revolution of 1911. The advance of the British on the Indian subcontinent changed the balance of power in Asia. China itself became a victim of colonial power politics and suffered a severe weakening, which also affected the protective power over Tibet. The imperial court tried to make up for its weakness by taking more energetic action in northern and eastern Tibet in order to prevent territorial losses there. Tibet was threatened by the British subjugation of India and the advance of colonial power on its borders. As a result, it closed its area to people from "Western powers" at the end of the 18th century. Since Tibet rejected England as a "protective power", but China was increasingly unable to exercise this function, Tibet sought equidistance from the second half of the 19th century, i.e. it shuttled between the two sides so as not to provoke any of them to intervene.

When Beijing began to strengthen its control over eastern Tibet in 1908/09, thereby undermining the foundations of previous relations, the Dalai Lama turned to Great Britain and asked for a protectorate to be established. London refused because, as a British document put it, Tibet was viewed as "worthless piece of territory". The cost of taking possession was overestimated; a takeover would also have led to conflicts with Russia. These two powers agreed to establish Tibet as a buffer zone between their spheres of influence, preferably under Chinese suzerainty. After the end of imperial rule in Beijing, the Dalai Lama declared his country independent in 1913. China did not recognize this move and never gave up its claim to Tibet. This applies to the Guomindang under Sun Yatsen, Chiang Kaishek and his successors as well as to the Communist Party (KP). Before the Chinese invasion of 1950, no state had recognized Tibet as an independent subject under international law. Treaties between Great Britain and China affirmed, albeit in a contradicting manner, that Tibet was independent but subject to Chinese rule.

Different legal conceptions

Based on the Convention on the Rights and Duties of States of the League of Nations of 1933, certain criteria were decisive for the recognition of a state: permanent population, clearly defined territory, a government and the ability to establish relations with other states. Three of these requirements were met in the case of Tibet. Due to the self-chosen isolation, however, there were no relations with other countries. That is why Tibet was not an internationally recognized state before 1950. The lack of recognition by the international community, the assignment to China and the claim maintained by Beijing make the international legal status of the country before 1950 appear to be ambiguous.

Tibet had declared itself independent, but at the same time failed to secure its independence internationally. Thus, in 1950, three decisive prerequisites for independence were missing: 1. An earlier participation in the life of the international community of states; 2. the persistence of China's weakness; 3. A protecting power which, after Britain's withdrawal from India in 1947, could have prevented China's forcible incorporation.

In 1947/48 the Tibetan government had unsuccessfully sent missions to the capitals of the most important western states in order to gain recognition. The resistance of the government in Beijing, which was then still constituted by the Guomindang (National People's Party), made its most important ally, the USA, reject the request. Even after moving to Taipei, the non-communist leadership of the Republic of China, which had held the seat on the UN Security Council for decades, prevented a change in Western attitudes. Great Britain (as a colonial power in Hong Kong) and France (as a colonial power in Indochina, which borders China) did not want to get involved in a conflict with Beijing, because it could have impaired their colonial interests in the Far East.

From the Chinese point of view, the forcible reintegration of Tibet seemed completely justified. China started and continues to use a different concept of nation and state than Western countries. According to this, all peoples who lived on Chinese territory until 1911 are part of the Chinese people. The term "Chinese" ("Zhongguoren") used in China includes all residents of the country regardless of their nationality. The members of the majority nationality are called "Han" and are considered one of the 56 nationalities of the country. In contrast to Western Europe, where relatively uniform nations formed nation states in the 18th and 19th centuries (agreement of the national and nation principle), in China the territorial principle was made the nation principle. Sun Yatsen, the founder of the Republic of China, wrote after the declaration of independence of the outer part of Mongolia (which later led to the establishment of the Mongolian People's Republic) that the Mongols are and will remain Chinese, even if they had forgotten this for a while.

The Dalai Lama

The title "Dalai Lama" (Mongolian: ocean-like teacher) was awarded in the 15th century by the Mongolian imperial court to the head of the powerful and Promongolian "yellow hat movement" within Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is not only considered the reincarnation of the founder of the yellow hats and the spiritual head of the Tibetans, but also the rebirth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva (i.e. a being who is on the way to Buddhahood) of universal compassion, who is also the patron saint of Tibet is.

(& copy AP)
The current Dalai Lama, whose official name is Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935 in the northern part of Tibet (Amdo), part of the Chinese province of Qinghai. After an uprising in Lhasa, he fled to India in 1959. Today he resides as head of the Tibetan "government in exile" in Dharamsala / India.



Therefore, there are two different legal concepts facing each other. According to the norms of international law today, the expansion of Chinese power to Tibet was clearly an occupation. According to Chinese legal understanding, on the other hand, it was a matter of restoring legitimate rights that China had not been able to exercise due to temporary weakness and conflict. According to this, Beijing had done nothing but reassert a long-disregarded legal principle. The strategic military situation of Tibet is likely to have been an important factor in the Chinese approach. Tibet has a natural border to the south. This strategic importance should not be underestimated, especially under the conditions of the Cold War. Tibet creates both a natural border and barrier to its rival India, with whom border disputes still exist. In addition, as a large, deserted region with great raw material potential, it was interesting for China.