693.0031 Tibet/1–849

Memorandum by Miss Ruth E. Bacon of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs to the Chief of the Division of Chinese Affairs ( Sprouse )

Reference is made to New Delhi’s despatch no. 35 of January 8, 19494 and previous despatches in which New Delhi recommends that the Department review US policy toward Tibet in the light of changing conditions in Asia.


During the visit of the Tibetan Trade Mission to the US in July 1948 the Department sought to show every friendliness to the Tibetan Mission without giving the Chinese Government cause for offense. The Department informed the Chinese Embassy that this Government had no intention of acting in a manner to call into question China’s de jure sovereignty over Tibet. On January 5, 1949 Ambassador Henderson informed the Tibetan Trade Mission that it was the policy of this Government to recognize the suzerainty of China over Tibet and that for the present relations between Tibet and the US would have to be strengthened by indirect means.

The Embassy at New Delhi has been suggesting for some time that in view of existing conditions in Asia we review our policy toward Tibet. The Embassy now proposes in substance that if for example the Communists succeed in controlling all of China or some equivalent far-reaching development takes place we should be prepared to treat Tibet as independent to all intents and purposes.

Arguments in Favor of the Embassy Proposal

If the Communists gain control of China proper, Tibet will be one of the few remaining non-Communist bastions in Continental Asia. Outer Mongolia is already detached. Communist influence is strong in Burma and Communists are infiltrating into Sinkiang and Inner Mongolia. Tibet will accordingly assume both ideological and strategic importance.
If Tibet possesses the stamina to withstand Communist infiltration—and the Embassy in New Delhi seems to feel that it does—it would be to our interest to treat Tibet as independent rather than to continue to regard it as a part of a China which has gone Communist.
The Government is relatively stable. The people are conservative and religious by nature and disposed to oppose Communism as in conflict with the tenets of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama’s authority extends beyond Tibet over persons who practice the lamaist form of Buddhism in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Mongolia, etc.
The Chinese Government cannot now assert—and there currently appears little likelihood that it ever again will be able to assert—effective de facto authority in Tibet.
The Tibetans are showing increasing interest in establishing trade and other relations with the outside world. It is to our interest to see that these efforts are oriented to the West and not to the East.

Arguments Against the Embassy Proposal

A decision to recognize Tibet involves a reconsideration not merely of our policy toward Tibet but also of our policy toward China. A basic principle of our policy toward China has been respect for China’s territorial integrity. This principle has retarded while not entirely preventing the gradual dismemberment of China and it helped China emerge from World War II with the status of a great power. This policy should not be abandoned unless it is clear that a permanent breakup of China is inevitable and that we have a substantial stake in Tibet.
Adoption of such a policy would lessen the weight of our objection to current Soviet efforts to detach additional northern areas from China. It would also complicate our position that we are not sufficiently sure of the Mongolian People’s Republic’s independence to favor the MPR’s admission to the UN.5
Such a policy might lead to intensified efforts on the part of the USSR to take Tibet into the Communist camp. If we carry on toward Tibet much as at present, the Communists might also be content to let the present situation there ride. By recognizing Tibet as independent while we are not in position to give Tibet the necessary practical support, because of its remoteness, we may in fact be pointing the way for Communist absorption of the area.
As a practical matter Tibet’s importance both ideologically and strategically is very limited. Because of its geographical remoteness, the primitive character of its Government and society and the limited character of its contacts with the outside world Tibet’s orientation toward the West cannot be counted upon to endure on an ideological [Page 1067] basis unless supported by far-reaching practical measures. If we cannot take these practical measures, recognition in itself would not hold Tibet in an alignment with the West and might in fact work against our long-run interests. Similarly, efforts to utilize Tibet strategically as for example as an air base or for the discharge of rockets would encounter not merely formidable difficulties of terrain and weather but also Tibet’s objections on religious grounds to the passage of planes over its territory. Unless rare minerals are found in Tibet, the Army does not regard Tibet as of strategical significance.
The answer to what measures of a practical nature can be taken appears to lie largely with India which now controls Tibet’s access to the West. If India cooperates with the West the importance of Tibet both ideologically and strategically will be considerably less. If India does not cooperate with the West the difficulties in the way of utilizing Tibet as a bastion for the West would be enormously magnified.

Policy of Other States

China asserts that Tibet is part of the territory of China and has no authority to conduct diplomatic negotiations with foreign governments. China has shown strong sensitivity on this point.

Tibet, according to the leader of the Tibetan Trade Mission is completely independent and the Chinese Government has no control whatsoever over the internal or external affairs of the country. However, the Tibetan Trade Mission entered China on Chinese passports and in general avoided raising open conflicts with the Chinese authorities.

India regards Tibet as an autonomous region under the sovereignty of China. India has however been reviewing its policy toward Tibet and our Embassy in Delhi reported in August, 19486 that as a result of this review India might not try to bolster the autonomous status of Tibet as assiduously as the British have done. Tibet has indicated but not pressed a desire to adjust in Tibet’s favor the Tibet-Indian border. Tibet has also expressed dissatisfaction with Indian customs policy as it relates to Tibet and to India’s control over Tibet’s foreign exchange resulting from Tibetan shipments through India.

The UK no longer has an abiding interest in the future of Tibet since British control was withdrawn from India, our Embassy in London reported in August, 19477 on the basis of discussions with a British Foreign Office official.

There are missions or agents of China, Nepal and India in Tibet.

Foreign Exchange Situation

The Tibetan Trade Mission which visited this country in 1948 sought to purchase 50,000 ounces of gold for currency stabilization. [Page 1068] The Mission was informed that the US Treasury Department was willing to sell gold to Tibet for this purpose. The Mission then informed the Department that although Tibetan exports had earned ample dollar exchange to pay for this gold India for the the present was withholding this dollar exchange. Accordingly the Mission asked for a temporary loan from the US of $2,000,000 for gold and machinery.

The Trade Mission maintained that the Tibetan exports which earned the foreign exchange were merely in transit through India from Tibet to foreign markets and that India would not permit Tibet to use this dollar exchange except in such amounts and for such purposes as suited Indian policies. A letter from the leader of the Mission to Secretary Marshall8 states “Curiously enough, the Government of India applied these restrictions and controls on the exports and imports of goods from and to Tibet—in spite of the fact that Tibetans use the port of Calcutta only as a centre through which goods are sent and brought to and from other countries of destination and origin, and that these goods are only in transit to and from such countries.”

The Indian Government according to an airgram of February 19 [17], 1949 will grant several hundred thousand dollars of exchange for the purchase by Tibet of essential commodities such as machinery and agricultural implements from abroad. India is not disposed, however, to grant the Tibetan request for dollar exchange for the purchase of the gold because (1) India does not desire to reduce its dollar exchange by permitting the purchase of an unessential commodity such as gold and (2) India believes that the Tibetans intend to smuggle the gold back into India for sale at an enormous personal profit.

The full details of the situation with regard to Tibet’s foreign exchange are not clear from a brief reading of the files. It may be that Tibet’s difficulties stem from a primitive banking and transport system which leads to a relay of the Tibetan foreign exchange into Indian hands.

On the face of the situation, however, Tibet would seem to have a grievance. It is a landlocked state with access to the outside world only through (a) China proper,—now cut off by civil war; (b) the USSR,—a route which we desire to discourage; and (c) India. For India to assume the right to control Tibet’s foreign exchange—even with the best of motives—would seem to be a policy which if persisted in would tend to alienate Tibet from the West toward the East. It would also seem to be contrary to the principles of freedom of international trade and intercourse which we are espousing.

Leaving aside the question whether a loan to Tibet would be economically desirable and leaving aside also the political implications [Page 1069] of such a loan, it is clear that there would be strong objection in this country to the making of any such loan if Tibet actually possesses ample funds which are now locked in India. Exploration of this whole subject with the Government of India would seem to be both necessary and desirable as a preliminary step to any further consideration of measures which might be taken in the matter of Tibet’s desire for gold.

Communist Interest in Tibet

There are on two occasions references in the files to possible Communist activities in connection with Tibet. The Embassy has not tended to regard these reports too seriously in the light of Tibetans’ known aversion to Communism. In a conversation with Ambassador Henderson on January 5, 1949 the leader of the Tibetan Trade Mission said that the Government of Tibet has recently prohibited the entry into Tibet of persons from Outer Mongolia who in the past had been permitted to come to study Buddhism and to become Buddha monks. Ambassador Henderson said that he gathered from the conversation that the Tibetan Government recognizes the danger to Tibet which will result if the Chinese Communists succeed in taking over China proper.

Chinese Sovereignty or Suzerainty Over Tibet

It is to be noted in the files there are references to China’s “sovereignty” or “suzerainty” over Tibet. As is, of course, known the two terms are not synonymous. It is difficult, however, to draw a precise line of demarkation between them. In general “suzerainty” implies less of Chinese authority and more of Tibetan autonomy than “sovereignty”. “Suzerainty” would accordingly appear to fit the case quite closely in some respects. “Suzerainty” however carries the connotation of a vassal state and does not fit as well into customary American concepts as into British usage. It is suggested that it might be desirable to avoid a possible controversy over “sovereignty” versus “suzerainty” by referring in future to Chinese de jure authority over Tibet or some similar comprehensive term.


A. Under Present Circumstances

Without placing too great reliance upon Tibet’s ideological or strategic importance, it is believed to be clearly to our advantage under any circumstances to have Tibet as a friend if possible. We should accordingly maintain a friendly attitude toward Tibet in ways short of giving China cause for offense. We should encourage so far as feasible Tibet’s orientation toward the West rather than toward the East.
For the present we should avoid giving the impression of any alteration in our position toward Chinese authority over Tibet such as for example steps which would clearly indicate that we regard Tibet [Page 1070] as independent, etc. We have recently given renewed assurances to China of our recognition of China’s de jure sovereignty or suzerainty over Tibet. Any decided change in our policy might give China cause for complaint, might necessitate embarrassing explanations, might stimulate Soviet efforts at infiltration into Tibet and might not in itself be sufficient to hold Tibet to our side. We should however keep our policy as flexible as possible by avoiding references to China’s sovereignty or suzerainty unless such references are clearly called for and by informing China of our proposed moves in connection with Tibet, rather than asking China’s consent for them. Ambassador Henderson’s statement of our policy in his conversation with the head of the Tibetan Trade Mission on January 5, 1949 would seem to cover the situation quite adequately.
As Tibet clearly feels that it is being unfairly treated by India in the matter of foreign exchange we should reconsider our present policy of avoiding raising this question with India. We should point out to India the desirability of removing causes of complaint which may serve to alienate Tibet against the West and show an interest in discovering whether some reasonable adjustment of the situation cannot be worked out. We should not give further consideration to the economic necessity or political feasibility of granting a loan to Tibet until the situation with regard to possible release of Tibetan foreign exchange from India has been explored.
Our information with regard to Tibet comes for the most part from third parties—China, India, Tibet—and is colored according to the aims and purposes of its source. To secure first-hand information and as an indication of our friendly interest, it would be desirable to send a suitable official or officials to Tibet if this can be done inconspicuously and without giving rise to speculation that we may have designs upon Tibet.

B. For the Future

The mature of developments will affect the policy which we should adopt toward Tibet in the future. If for example the Communists should take over all of China proper and the National Government should disappear we would be faced with the alternatives of (1) treating Tibet as under the authority of the Communist Government—which we should clearly wish to avoid or (2) dealing with Tibet as for all intents and purposes independent. The latter policy would clearly be to our advantage. If however the Communists take over China proper but an émigré National Government should continue to exist, we would then have to decide our policy toward Tibet partly in the light of our policy toward the émigré Government. The question would arise whether we should place emphasis on Tibet’s independence by formally recognizing it and by sponsoring its application [Page 1071] for membership in the UN or whether we should avoid stressing the matter of independence but should merely maintain direct relations with Tibet without a public change of policy. Decision on this question would involve (1) our estimate whether open recognition of independence might stimulate Soviet activities to take over Tibet; (2) whether we have the practical means to afford sufficient assistance to Tibet to make probable its continuance in a western alignment; and (3) our estimate whether China’s dismemberment is likely to be on a fairly permanent basis.

  1. Not printed.
  2. United Nations.
  3. Airgram No. 434, August 9, 1948, not printed.
  4. Airgram No. 1841, August 26, 1947, not printed.
  5. George C. Marshall, Secretary of State until January 7, 1949.