News and Views on Tibet

Tibet – Mongolia Treaty of 1913, a proof of Tibet’s independence: Interview

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter

“The treaty (Tibet Mongolia Treaty of 1913) begins with Tibet and Mongolia attesting to their having emerged from under Manchu domination and constituted themselves as independent states.”

By Phurbu Thinley

For centuries, Tibet and Mongolia had shared a strong cultural and historical relationship. Following the collapse of the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty in 1911, Tibet and Mongolia declared independence and, subsequently signed a treaty of friendship and recognition of each other’s independence in 1913.

For sometime the existence of the treaty between Tibet and Mongolia, as having been concluded in early 1913, was considered questionable by some writers.

Recently, the original Tibetan (but not the Mongol) text of the Tibet-Mongol Treaty of 1913 was rediscovered, making one important part of the original document available to scholars for the first time.

In an interview with Phayul, Prof. Elliot Sperling sheds more light on the treaty and its historical significance vis-à-vis the vexed Tibet issue.

Prof. Elliot is a faculty member in the Dept. of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, where he directs the Tibetan Studies program. Recently he was in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-exile in India, to present public lectures on the Treaty, the rediscovery of its original text and its significance. He has also been giving numerous lectures on the subject at various universities in the west in recent times.


Q: What exactly is the Tibet Mongolia Treaty of 1913?

Elliot Sperling: The Treaty is exactly what its appellation states it to be. It is a treaty signed and sealed by representatives of Tibet and Mongolia in January 1913. The treaty begins with Tibet and Mongolia attesting to their having emerged from under Manchu domination and constituted themselves as independent states. It goes on to different short articles which deal, among other things, with the provision of mutual aid and assistance, as well as commercial and financial matters.

Q – The original Tibetan text version of the treaty was rediscovered sometime last year. From where and when exactly? Why was it not officially available before?

E.S. – The treaty was found in Mongolia. It was likely in the state archives (it bears the seal of the old foreign ministry); with copies beginning to circulate only last year. No doubt the delicate political situation of Mongolia, for most of the 20th century (positioned as it was between the USSR and China) played a role in keeping the original version of the treaty inaccessible. Nevertheless, other versions of the treaty were available in English, Chinese and Mongol. There was even a Tibetan version, translated (like the Chinese version) from English (!), by Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa—and until the original Tibetan text appeared this was the only version available to Tibetan readers. The English version itself was a translation from Russian, and the Russian version in turn is assumed to have been based on an unofficial Mongol rendering of the original. None of these other versions really match the full meaning of all parts of the original Tibetan text exactly, but the degree to which they come close to the sense of the original is surprising. To sum up, the chain of translation went from the Tibetan original to Mongol, then to Russian, then to English, and then from English separately to Chinese and (via Shakabpa) back into Tibetan (but as a different text than the original).

Q – What is the historical significance of this treaty of 1913?

E.S. – Since the very existence of the treaty was sometimes called into question, its rediscovery has historical significance. The fact that it constitutes an official document wherein both Tibet and Mongolia recognize each other as independent in the wake of the collapse of the Qing Dynasty is central to its significance.

Q – China dismisses the existence and the validity of this Treaty. On what grounds?

E.S. – Chinese writers have generally disparaged the treaty, though not all do so using the same terms. One Chinese language work takes pains to refer to the treaty as an “agreement,” implying that it had no international validity. (The same lexicographical attitude is evident in the 17-Point Agreement of 1951, where the term “agreement’ was used to show that the document in question represented an internal arrangement between parties within one sole country and was not to be construed as an international instrument.) Other Chinese writers, in disparaging the Tibet-Mongol Treaty, rely on the account of Charles Bell, who stated that the 13th Dalai Lama had explicitly neither sought the conclusion of such a document nor, afterwards, ratified it.

Q – There is no dispute that Tibet was entirely independent of foreign control between 1911 and 1950. Also the Thirteenth Dalai Lama made a formal declaration of Tibet’s independence in 1912. However, the existence of the treaty between Tibet and Mongolia, as having been concluded in early 1913, was considered questionable by some scholars.

E.S. – Again, this is largely owed to Bell’s account. Alfred Rubin dismissed its validity, “[e]ven if the treaty did exist,” while Tom Grunfeld described it with the adjective “alleged.” In the 1987 edition of his book on modern Tibet he said of the treaty that “It appears to be a classic case of ‘disinformation’ on the part of Russian colonial officials in Mongolia.” He omitted this evaluation from the 1996 edition.

Q – Since the original text is now rediscovered; what are its prospects, if any, vis-à-vis Tibet issue among Tibet scholars?

E.S. – That remains to be seen. It certainly cannot be dismissed out-of-hand.

Q – What conclusion can you draw after obtaining the original text of this much debated and lesser known treaty?

E.S. – The treaty is real; it does exist and it is signed and sealed by officials acting in the capacity of Minister-Plenipotentiaries of the Dalai Lama, with full authority to conclude it. This is evident from the content of the treaty. In spite of the suspicions voiced about it, particularly on the part of Charles Bell, it seems inconceivable that the Tibetan signatories would have fabricated evidence of the Dalai Lama’s permission for them to do what they did and then embedded the fraud (i.e., reference to their empowerment by the Dalai Lama as plenipotentiaries) in the very wording of the document itself. As for Bell’s statement about the Dalai Lama downplaying his role in the treaty, we may perhaps assume that in the wake of the events that sent him into exile twice, he had no illusions about the balance of power around Tibet: when British displeasure with the rumored treaty became evident he chose to equivocate about it to Bell.

– Thank you very much, Prof. Sperling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *