Today, India, China, and Russia are gingerly exploring a north-south continental axis bridging Eurasia: developing alliances, trade routes, pipelines, and other infrastructure assets that are bi-lateral rather than internationalized, land-locked instead of sea-based; less vulnerable to the UN sanctions regime and the US blue-water military capability that underpins it; and less dependent on unrestricted access to the Pacific Ocean in an uncertain environment in which Japan-and Seventh Fleet-related complications could quickly arise if things turn nasty over Taiwan.
As a measure of how the Chinese, without a legitimate blue-water naval presence of their own, feel about the vulnerability of their ocean trade, I read an impassioned account of the threat posed by U.S. ambitions to unilaterally militarize and dominate the Malacca Straits as part of the war on terror, not in a weighty policy journal but in a glossy in-flight magazine on the way to Urumuchi.
In recent years, all sorts of schemes have been floated: reopening the Stilwell Road to remove the ocean leg from China-Burmese-Indian trade; running a pipeline down to the port of Sittwe, Burma so Chinese tankers can offload there and eliminate passage through the Malacca Straits; and building a rail link between Kunming and Yongan, Burma.
The Russians are discussing an oil pipeline down to India via Kashgar and India even proposed extending the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline through to China, thereby enlisting Beijing as a guarantor of Pakistan’s good behavior in faithfully transshipping Iranian natural gas to its Indian competitor.
Tibet is not a full part of this process.
Geographical obstacles aside, Tibet’s role in the traditional PRC political calculus has been as a buffer state that needed to be geographically isolated and politically neutered.
Now, with fears of subversion and invasion less important parts of the strategic equation, China may be willing to envision Tibet as part of a vital Central Asian economic system. However, China wants to complete its expensive and risky project to subjugate and Sinicize the unruly nation first.
Infrastructure projects, such as the Qinghai-Tibet railway, appear to be intended to integrate Tibet into China, rather than into Central and South Asia.
In this context, it’s interesting to revisit the last time the geopolitical map of Asia was radically remade—the anti-colonial convulsion sparked by Japan’s campaign of conquest during the Second World War.
During this struggle, world and regional leaders looked at the map of Asia and saw glimpses of a brave new world with India decolonized, Japan knocking on China’s door from the southwest as well as the east, and, possibly, a new strategic conformation with Tibet at its heart.
It all started with plans for a road--a road through Shangri-La.
Today, thanks to an account of a minor incident that quickly faded into deserved obscurity, we can gain a fresh perspective on the region, this period in history, and the rancorous conflict between Tibet and China that postponed Tibet's entry into the modern world for at least 50 years.
The incident in question is the adventure of five U.S. aviators who parachuted out of their airplane near Lhasa in 1943, and the convoluted diplomatic machinations surrounding their repatriation.
The story is related in Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt’s judicious and well-written account, Lost in Tibet (2004, The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut), drawing on published and unpublished recollections of the aviators, British Foreign Office records, and other sources.
It begins with a U.S. C-87 (a B-24 modified for transport) deadheading back to India from Kunming on November 31, 1943 after flying supplies over the Hump.
Sent far off course by a ferocious storm and navigational difficulties, the plane’s fuel was exhausted, its engines sputtered and went silent, and the five men were forced to bail out in the dark over the Himalayas.
Miraculously, the entire crew survived, landing in the middle of an opera bouffe of paranoia, intrigue, and political one-upmanship.
The backstory of the absurd treatment of these innocent aviators was Tibet’s determined efforts to win international recognition for its government, Chiang Kai-shek’s relentless maneuvering to exploit the exigencies of World War II logistics and strategy to assert increased Chinese control over Tibet...and the road.
The ancient issue of Tibetan autonomy, which had stayed on the back burner as the Axis continued its seemingly inexorable march toward world conquest, emerged as a more pressing geopolitical conundrum with the Allies’ desire to build a road from India to China via Tibet to supply the KMT government in its fight against the Japanese.
The Tibetan government was keen to use the proposed road as a bargaining chip, and win western acknowledgement of its de facto independence as the price of permitting the road.
They were encouraged, apparently irresponsibly, by the first U.S. government envoys to visit Tibet—Ilya Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan.
Tolstoy and Dolan went to Lhasa in 1942, where they were feted by the Tibetan government, and made some rash assurances concerning U.S. support of Tibetan sovereignty, perhaps as a cynical ploy to gain Tibetan support for the road at the price of some implicitly conditional, silently caveated, and certain-to-be-revisited feel-good rhetoric concerning Tibetan independence.
On the other hand, China’s Nationalist government had no intention of renouncing the suzerainty it claimed over Tibet, and World War II provided Chiang Kai-shek, as well as Tibet, with some unexpected leverage—and incentive.
The Tibet road had acquired a significance beyond the immediate issue of providing a larger and more reliable overland conduit for aid to China than the dangerous and limited Hump airlift.
As the Secretary of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission (MTAC) Office in Tibet, Chen Xizhang, recalled in his posthumously published recollections , at one time the Tibet road seemed to be the key to a fundamental readjustment of the balance of power in central Asia:
By 1943, the invading Japanese army had penetrated Burma and was threatening India...In this emergency, Great Britain had no alternative but to seek assistance from the United States. The U.S. premise for aiding the allies was that Chiang Kai-shek would dispatch troops to assist India, which would be airlifted by the United States to Burma and the Indian border regions for battle.
Based on the situation at the time, the Chinese battle capability was far superior to the British, Indian, and U.S. armies (!).
At the same time there were also reports that said India would, if needed, utilize Tibet as its place of retreat. Chiang Kai-shek saw that the situation was in flux, the attitudes of the British were shifting somewhat, so he planned to exploit the convenience of aiding India and take the advantage of this opportunity to construct the road through Xikang and Tibet. This would facilitate the dispatch of troops, the transport of materials, assist the Allies as an external matter, and pull Tibet closer as an internal matter. It would also secure the rear area...
For Chiang, Japan’s drive into South Asia elevated Tibet to a key strategic concern.
If Japan continued to prevail, Tibet was a threat—a potential corridor for a movement of hostile troops against Chungking’s rear.
But even if the Japanese military machine ran out of steam beneath the Himalayas, Britain’s days in India were clearly numbered.
Once the imperial system that had kept Tibet bottled up as an autonomous state under Chinese suzerainty collapsed, Chiang would have to face the prospect of dealing with an independent, obstreperous, and militarily nettlesome Tibetan state after the war.
There was a chance that, in other words, Tibet would look to the KMT much as Taiwan looks to the PRC today: an aggravating, destabilizing factor in Chinese foreign affairs; a continual affront to Chinese prestige and claims to sovereignty; and a focal point for competing military and economic forces that might seek to bypass, contain, or even confront China.
War, politics, and technology had combined to give Tibet new geopolitical potential—potential that Chiang, despite the distraction of having the heart of his country occupied by an invading army, decided he would have to either exploit or contend with.
Chiang was willing to have the road built--if he was able to staff it with Chinese "technicians" and use it as a travel conduit going the other way for Chinese "refugees". The Tibetans, of course, were adamantly opposed.
Even in the middle of the war with Japan, in 1943, Chiang Kai-shek massed troops on Tibet’s borders, ostensibly out of frustration with Tibet’s blatantly obstructionist attitude toward the road, and its tireless efforts to undermine Chinese claims to suzerainty.
Lin Hsiao-ting, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institute who has studies Chinese ethnic politics during the KMT era, argued in China Quarterly (War or Stratagem? Evaluating China’s Military Advance towards Tibet, 1942-1943, CQ Volume 186 - June 2006 - Cambridge) that Chiang acted in anticipation of a Japanese conquest of India and Burma, and entry into Tibet—a triumph that, together with the elimination of Chiang’s regime, certain sectors of the Lhasa elite were apparently anticipating with a certain eagerness.
According to Lin’s analysis, rather than engage in a quixotic crusade to conquer Tibet, Chiang simply intended to use the pretext of a Tibet invasion to move his troops into the fiefdoms of his independent and uncooperative generals Ma Bufang and Liu Wenhui, and assert effective central government control in case a second front of the anti-Japanese war opened in western Sichuan.
If this was indeed the case, this stratagem was, like many of the G-mo’s masterstrokes, ineffective and counterproductive, arousing the suspicion and distrust not only of the Tibetans and his own generals, but the United States and England as well.
Chiang’s brinksmanship did nothing to improve his strategic position in southwest China.
On the other hand, in deference to Chinese intransigence, and unwilling to roil the anti-Japanese effort with a Tibetan sideshow, the British decided not to go through with a plan to support Tibetan independence—an outcome that provided no tangible benefits to Chiang Kai-shek but yielded fatal postwar consequences for Tibet.
And tensions between Chungking and Lhasa were jacked up to an unprecedented degree.
The KMT’s man in Lhasa at this tense time was Dr. Kung Chin-tsung, in charge of the Nationalist government’s MTAC Residency in Tibet.
Dr. Kung, a graduate of Peking University posted at one time to China’s embassy in Belgium, was perhaps not regarded as a high-powered envoy (he was replaced in 1944 by the renowned Shen Tsung-lien, who took the post with vastly expanded powers).
Chen Xizhang wrote:
Kong Qingzong of the Tibet Office had been in Tibet four years [in 1944-ed.]. The feelings between him and the Tibetan government were not too harmonious. His operational capability was not very strong. He had been in the border regions for a long time and was out of touch with the situation both inside and outside of China. Also, he had no relation with Chiang Kai-shek.
Dr. Kung had his hands full dealing with continual and calculated Tibetan challenges to Chinese suzerainty.
The Tibetan government attempted to communicate with Dr. Kung through a “Foreign Affairs Bureau” it had established in July 1942, implying that China was a foreign power on par with Britain and Nepal.
Kung indignantly boycotted the bureau, with the result that official communication between Kung and the Tibetan government had ground to a halt.
Nevertheless, the Tibetan government turned to Chinese radio operators (the Tibetan government at the time had no radio capability of its own and relied on British and Chinese radio facilities when it needed to make a transmission) stationed in Lhasa to transmit a formal and noncommittal message to Chiang Kai-shek in October 1943 congratulating him on his appointment as president.
The Tibetans entertained some grim doubts about the integrity of Chinese radio retransmissions, doubts that later turned out to be very well founded indeed.
From Starks and Murcutt:
As the Tibetans suspected, the Chinese had radically altered the Tibetans’ messages. In one message, the Chinese quoted Takra Rinpoche, the Regent, as recognizing Chiang Kai-shek as the president of “our” Republic, and had him saying that “the whole nation, including the people in this part of the country, are singing your praises. Your election to the highest office of the Republic adds glory not only to our native land but also to the universe as a whole. Henceforth our strong internal unity will surely lead to our national rejuvenation....” This was not what the Regent had said. (LIT, pp. 171-2)
Not surprisingly, Sino-Tibetan relations were a stew of animosity, suspicion, and paranoia.
And the mutual hostility and mistrust came to a boil over the mysterious appearance in Lhasa of five American airmen at the same time China was threatening an invasion of Tibet.
The Tibetan government harbored suspicions—which it never completely surrendered—that the U.S. airmen were part of an intelligence operation under Chinese auspices, perhaps even an invasion vanguard, that had gone awry.
The Chinese had concerns of their own.
When news of the downed U.S. aviators reached Lhasa, Dr. Kung threw his operation into high gear. No doubt he was keen both to determine if there was some sort of back-channel perfidy going on between Lhasa and Washington related to the road, and to assert China’s rights as suzerain over Tibet by taking responsibility for the disposition of these unexpected foreign visitors.
Dr. Kung dispatched his agents to determine the path and time of arrival of the American airmen to Lhasa and arranged an ambush—a hospitality ambush.
Starks and Murcutt describe the scene on the outskirts of Lhasa, drawing on the memoir of one of the aviators, Robert Crozier:
The Chinese swirled around them, forcing the Americans to halt. Someone grabbed Crozier’s mule by the reins...A channel was cut through the crowd...the two, maroon-robed Tibetan officials [who had accompanied them from the rescue site] were shunted off to one side, and the were last seen heading towards Lhasa...In the field, Crozier found himself in front of a large tent...Kung appeared in the doorway...bowing politely and beckoning the Amerians to enter. Crozier was all but lifted inside—and there he found a scene that might have come straight out of the Arabian Nights.
Plush carpets covered the floor; they were piled high, one on top of the another. Soft banquettes lined the walls. And in the center stood a long low table ...liberally covered with bowls of delicacies and sweetmeats...and a set of large, bluish-green tumblers.” LIT, p. 100
The tumblers were filled, promptly emptied, and immediately refilled with Chinese liquor, South African brandy, and Tibetan chang in an endless succession of toasts that left the airmen “in a lovely daze” and “feeling pretty rosy”.
Kung spirited them back to his residence in the center of Lhasa for an elaborate Chinese dinner.
However, the dinner marked the apogee of China’s influence over the airmen.
An angry mob of “thousands” (a considerable number, since the total population of Lhasa at that time was perhaps 25,000) gathered outside of Kung’s residence, throwing rocks and communicating unambiguous menace.
One can take Tibetan hostility to the Chinese as a given, but I would suspect that in this case it was encouraged at the Tibetan government.
The Tibetan authorities would have been incensed at Kung’s overreach in hijacking these aviators who, perhaps, were American intelligence agents working either independently or in cahoots with the Nanjing, and who, definitely, presented a unique opportunity for the Tibetan government to convey directly to Washington its active love and assistance for all things American and contempt for all things Chinese.
The rock-throwing crowd was roughly dispersed by a combination of Chinese security and Tibetan civil and monastery police, and the aviators found a safe and quiet refuge at the home of the head of the British mission, George Sherriff until they were repatriated via India after a stay in Lhasa of less than a week.
For the farewells, there was another round of churlish contention disguised as hospitality.
Dr. Kung tried to throw a going away party; the Tibetan government responded by demanding that the aviators leave at once; Dr. Kung dug in his heels and Sherriff had the satisfaction of demonstrating the value of British good offices by offering his residence to the Chinese for some subdued, sub rosa banqueting of the departing aviators.
The five Americans, including one with a broken shoulder, were briskly dispatched with Tibetan passports and escorts from Lhasa for a miserable and dangerous 250-mile two week march on muleback in mid-winter, crossing six high altitude and soon-to-be-snowbound passes down to Sikkim.
The Tibetan government made a last, fruitless attempt to wring an acknowledgement of Tibetan sovereignty out of the United States by sending a mildly worded complaint that the plane had violated “international law” by intruding on Tibetan airspace; the U.S. replied noncommittally that it would try to avoid overflights in the future.
U.S. recognition of Tibetan sovereignty simply wasn’t in the cards. Neither was the road.
The KMT’s uniformly disastrous efforts to influence Tibetan affairs survived its withdrawal thousands of miles away to Taiwan in 1949 and continued well into the 1990s.
MTAC—the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission--aroused intense hatred within the Tibetan emigre community by its attempts to identify and cultivate factions that would oppose the Communists but be loyal to the KMT regime instead of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence. (An interesting sidelight in Michel Peissel’s classic ethnographic survey of the barony of Mustang—also the last sanctuary of the anti-Chinese Tibetan resistance --is the terror of his Amdo Tibetan companion and translator that he might be murdered by the Khampa guerillas if they determined his ethnicity and assumed—correctly—that he had once belonged to one of the KMT-sponsored splinter groups they detested).
Following a dramatically successful visit to Taiwan by the Dalai Lama in 1997, Taiwan’s post Chiang Ching-kuo rulers turned their backs on KMT pretensions to suzerainty over Tibet and Mongolia.
A pathetic denouement of sorts was reached when pie in the sky plans—and several million dollars NT—for a mini-Potala in Taiwan that would serve as a rival focal point to Dharmsala for the Tibetan diaspora and a possible home for the Dalai Lama evaporated in the 1990s.
MTAC still exists, but only as a talking shop dispensing white papers and scholarships, instead of as a cabinet level post.
Interestingly, Dr. Kung did not make the jump to Taiwan. He stayed on the mainland after 1949. His rather truncated PRC resume —he served inside the Southwest Finance and Economic Commission’s planning office and then in the Sichuan Political Consultative Congress--implies that his public career probably didn’t make it past the first anti-Rightist purge.
Dr. Kung lived to the age of 86, dying in 1981 with several published works and a reputation as an expert in Tibetan affairs. His influence lives on, with his 1940s KMT correspondence frequently showing up in the footnotes of PRC articles meant to demonstrate the controlling role China occupied in Tibetan foreign affairs.
Worth noting here is that Chinese aggression against Tibet was a multi-generational, bi-partisan affair.
Developments in geopolitics—the impending British withdrawal from India, either under Japanese guns or in response to the Indian independence movement—and technology—the feasibility of air and truck routes crisscrossing the Tibetan plateau—created an opportunity for China in Tibet.
Tibet's corrupt and feckless feudal regime could have done a better job of realizing that the old static model based on geographic isolation was coming to an end, and looked at the issue of a road across Tibet as more than another easy opportunity to yank the world's chain on the issue of Tibetan sovereignty.
Chiang Kai-shek, though ever willing, was unable to capitalize on this opportunity, but the Chinese Communists did, with bloody and tragic results.
They were aided by the United States, which spurned diplomatic overtures from Tibet, beginning in 1942, in deference to the demands of Chiang Kai-shek.
Whatever compromises were necessary to obtain Chiang’s continued participation in the anti-Japanese war, they became indefensible after the KMT regime had been defeated and retreated to Taiwan.
Nevertheless, the United States—in defiance of its geopolitical interests, in deference to British and French efforts to preserve their colonial privileges in Asia, and under the influence of the China Lobby—continued to support Chiang Kai-shek’s ruinous insistence on Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.
There are decisions that could have changed history, and if the United States had openly and materially supported independence movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, instead of limiting its support to ineffectual covert anti-Communist paramilitary programs, the map of China--and the state of the world--would have been a lot different.
In the end, the only roads that were built through Tibet from China to India were military roads, delivering Communist troops to the Indian border for the 1962 war.
The fact that the road was not built was immaterial.
It was the mere realization that a road could be built--and an appreciation of what that meant--that awakened ambitions and fears throughout Asia and unleashed forces that Tibet's creaky, feudal society could not control or survive on its own.
So Tibet, which might have stood at the crossroads of postwar Central Asia, instead spent 50 years scraping out an existence as a brutalized backwater and buffer state in the corner of East Asia.
Peter Goullart’s memoir of his time in Xikang in 1940-42, Land of the Lamas (E.P. Dutton & Company, New York, 1959) provides an interesting illustration of the depth of mistrust between Chiang Kai-shek and his generals in southwest China on the Tibetan border.
Goullart, a White Russian and Taoist adept with a naive thirst for public service and adventure, volunteered his services to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Industrial Cooperatives through an indirect acquaintance with Mdme. H.H. Kung, the financially astute Soong sister.
He was dispatched to the capital of Xikang Province, Tachienlu (present-day Kangding) in eastern Sichuan—the stronghold of General Liu Wenhui, the refractory warlord who bedeviled Chiang Kai-shek’s plans for the southwest--with a letter of credential but no money and no instructions.
Although Goullart was apparently abandoned by the central government after it had discharged its obligation to Mdme. Kung to place him, his presence in Xikang excited the active malice of Liu’s administration.
Goullart was dispatched, with some distinctly dodgy minders, to institute a creamery at a government-run yak farm in a remote village, Garthar, at an elevation of 13,000 feet. On the way there, his suspiciously rickety mount expired, forcing him to complete the extremely arduous journey on foot (while his companions rode).
The amenities, in terms of food and housing, in Gathar were roughly on par with a Chinese or Soviet prison camp. Cold, altitude, and malnutrition—as his minders apparently sustained themselves on secret stores of more palatable and nourishing food—drove Goullard to his physical and psychological limits.
In an experience of a kind that has been cited as illustrating the nadir of the Great Leap Forward famines, when Goullart squatted down for that most private encounter between man and his physical nature, his repose was interrupted by the shock of a pig rooting around his fundament. He was later advised that this porcine desperation, or at least impatience, was endemic to the area given the shortage of food, and he was lucky to have escaped without serious injury.
Goullart was saved by a Tibetan uprising that compelled the evacuation of Gathar; even so, his companions did their best to leave him behind in the mountains as they raced back to Xikang’s capital. He walked forty to fifty miles per day through snow and across rivers and staggered into Tachienlu in his stocking feet, more dead than alive.
After he recovered, a kindly informant, “Mr. Ling”, explained the situation:
...the Provincial Government’s attitude frankly scared the wits out of me. It appeared that they talked a lot about me in government offices. They did not like the idea of my being sent here by the Central Government...They thought that already too many eyes from the Central Government were watching them as they were skimming the cream from the riches of the new province...There were frank consultations in camera how to get rid of me...I literally froze in horror when Mr. Ling whispered to me that the accidents and discomforts I had met with...were pre-arranged. They did not dare to “bump me off” openly but they would have been delighted if I had died from exhaustion on my trip there, or from the starvation diet on the farm or by being lost on my way back....Mr. Ling said my innocence did not matter at all. The provincial “big bosses” were intriguing against the “big shots” sent by the Central Government...these secret opponents...saw the value...of using me... as a “ball” to throw at each other.
Fortunately for Mr. Goullart, and future readers, Mr. Ling gave him the sage advice to abandon his futile and dangerous duties in the capital and indulge his curiosity and love of adventure by traveling among the Lolos (animist tribespeople, currently identified as part of the Yi minority) for the remainder of his tenure.
When Goullart returned to Tachienlu, he was promptly placed under house arrest, accused alternately of being an agent of Japan and of Stalin, of intent to “create a disturbance and raise up the mob” on behalf of forces unknown, and conspiring to “encompass the destruction of Tachienlu by predicting and producing a violent earthquake by means yet to be determined”. The Xikang government ransacked his belongings, seized his papers, confiscated a collection of vegetable seed packets that they deemed a dangerous type of explosive, and bivouacked soldiers in his house, who killed and ate his dog.
Goullart was rescued when his wayward patron, H.H. Kung, came through with a telegram ordering his release. His local hosts cannily withheld the telegram for twenty-four hours so they would have the privilege of declaring Goullart innocent and releasing him as an exercise in Xikang justice and generosity, and not merely in response to Central Government intervention.
Goullart, who had learned a thing or two, “played the game in accordance with Chinese etiquette, not moving an eyelash to betray the fact that I knew about the telegrams, and thanking him for so ‘spontaneous’ and kind a decision of his Government. Thus with ‘face’ saved all around I stepped out of the house into the street to receive warm congratulations on every corner both from friends and strangers.”
He decided that pursuing the Co-operative movement in Xikang was futile, “as the Sikang Government had made it quite clear they did not want any cooperatives in or around Tachienlu, unless created by themselves and they had complete control of all funds that might have been allocated by Chungking.”
Happier times awaited Goullart in Likiang, an idyllic river town where he worked until the Communist takeover as Depot Master for the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives and collected materials for his classic memoir, Forgotten Kingdom. As the Times Literary Supplement put it, 'This is a book about paradise by a man who lived there for nine years.”
Land of the Lamas is out of print.
The full text of Forgotten Kingdom complete with illustrations, is available on-line at Pratyeka.
Lost in Tibet by Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt (2004, The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT) is available at Amazon and Powell’s.