China’s refusal to respect autonomy in Tibet and Hong Kong resembles an attempt to revive a colonial past – one which Britain has an obligation not to walk away from

Britain is undertaking a long overdue debate on its relationship with an increasingly authoritarian China under now President-for-life Xi Jinping. 

The intensity and speed with which China’s new National Security Law eviscerated Hong Kong’s autonomy – in violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration – is shaping a growing cross-party consensus that substantial recalibration is needed. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged that Britain will “not walk away” from the people of Hong Kong.  

Yet Britain’s stance on Hong Kong suffers from an ill-advised 2008 decision in which Britain dramatically redefined its century-old position on the legal status of another Beijing-controlled territory: Tibet. 

That decision taught China that Britain’s stance on such issues need not be taken seriously. Britain now has an opportunity to correct that error, while strengthening its strategic leverage and credibility with China.

As with Hong Kong, Britain’s policy on Tibet centres around promoting autonomy.  Unlike Hong Kong, however, Britain long considered Tibet to be a state and maintained bilateral relations with it. Britain’s position until 2008 was to “recognise Chinese suzerainty over Tibet but only on the understanding that Tibet is regarded as autonomous”, invoking a legal concept – suzerainty – whereby one state may have a protectorate over another state, but not sovereignty.  

This position was developed in the early 20th Century, when Tibet was a strategic buffer state between India and China. Tibet was in fact independent until 1951. Britain and Tibet concluded treaties including the 1914 Simla Convention, one with repercussions today: it ceded to India what is now Arunachal Pradesh, which China still covets as “South Tibet”.  

Tibet’s independence was violently breached when Communist China invaded in 1950 and imposed an autonomy agreement that was a precursor to Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’. China increasingly violated this arrangement, and Tibet’s autonomy ended tragically when China crushed the 1959 Tibetan national uprising — foreshadowing China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.

For the next half century, Britain maintained its treaty-based position on Tibet. Then, in 2008, the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband abruptly issued a ministerial statement declaring that “we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China”.  This statement did not cite any legal principle permitting China to turn suzerainty into sovereignty.  It merely asserted that Britain’s prior position was an “anachronism” – a stance China would later copy by dismissing the Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong as an outdated “historical document”.  

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For China, Britain’s 2008 ministerial statement was an unalloyed victory. Its effect was to single-handedly vitiate a primary argument for Tibet’s autonomy today: its distinct legal status. The top strategic priority for Beijing’s Tibet policy has long been to address the legitimacy deficit of its territorial claim there; now Britain – the only major power with treaty relations with Tibet – had endorsed that claim. Even better for China, it had conceded nothing in return. Even ‘realists’ who may have hoped this unilateral gift would bring Britain diplomatic or economic gain were soon disappointed. Indeed, the Chinese Government’s playbook is to pocket unilateral concessions, view the gesture as weakness, and demand more.

So Britain’s policy change hurt not just Tibet but also Britain. 

It demonstrated that Britain, during the 2008 financial crisis, would meekly walk away from a people with whom it had a long history and binding treaties. And Britain unilaterally forfeited its most powerful leverage on China with respect to Tibet: its unique historical link to Tibet’s distinct legal status. China surely remembers this as it weighs Britain’s credibility, leverage, and resolve on Hong Kong during today’s economic crisis.  

How can Britain correct this dangerous error? First, return to its long-standing position on Tibet’s legal status, derived from its treaties with Tibet. This would be a powerful signal to China that Britain will not abandon its legal obligations to the people of Tibet and Hong Kong. This is also perhaps the single best tool Britain can offer the Tibetan people in their dire struggle for their rights.  

Second, Britain can clarify that its early 20th Century position on Tibet’s historic legal status remains valid: Tibet was not under the sovereignty of either Imperial or Republican China. The 2008 ministerial statement leaves a gap here. Without clarification, Britain jeopardises India’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh, and imperils India’s other disputes with China along the Indo-Tibetan border.

Third, Britain can rededicate itself to bold and creative measures for self-rule in Tibet – Britain’s stated goal for a century. This could involve legislation such as the Tibetan Policy and Support Act being considered in the US, initiating a multilateral “contact group” to coordinate Tibet policy among like-minded states, and increasing informal recognition of the India-based Tibetan Government-in-Exile. This would show Hong Kong – and China – that Britain is steadfast.

China may retort that Britain is seeking to revive a colonial past, but it is China’s refusal to respect autonomy in Tibet and Hong Kong that resembles colonialism. By revising its self-damaging 2008 capitulation on Tibet, Britain would demonstrate that it indeed does not ‘walk away’ from a people with whom it shares ties and treaty obligations. Besides being the principled thing to do, such a move would put Britain in a stronger position as it faces numerous other challenges and threats from the People’s Republic of China.

Chris Law is MP for Dundee West and Shadow Secretary for International Development and Climate Justice. He tweets @ChrisLawSNP. Nima Binara served as a lawyer in several positions in the US Government and is a former director of Tibet Justice Centre. He tweets @Nima_Binara.


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