A geopolitical reading of the 1913 Treaty between Tibet and Mongolia

A Treaty of friendship and alliance between the Government of Mongolia and Tibet.
A Treaty of friendship and alliance between the Government of Mongolia and Tibet.

This article appeared in the Jan-Feb 2015 edition of Tibetan Review.

An analysis of the geopolitical consequences of the treaty signed on 11 January, 1913 between Mongolia and Tibet, after the end of Ch’ing dynasty

Matteo MieleDespite an initial doubt about its validity under strict Western standards, the Tibeto-Mongol treaty of Jan 11, 1913 by which Tibet and Mongolia recognized each other’s independence from China, was indubitably valid, that it had real consequences in terms of upsetting the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 – due to the 1912 Treaty between Mongolia and Russia – and caused other geopolitical consequences which eventually led to the tripartite Simla Convention of 1914 between Britain, Tibet and China, explains Matteo Miele*, relying mainly on British archival sources.

The treaty

On 17 January, 1913, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Sazanov, handed to the British ambassador, George Buchanan, a memorandum about the mutual recognition of Mongolia’s and Tibet’s independence from China[1]. The representative of the Dalai Lama was Agvan Dorjiev[2]. The 1912 Treaty between Mongolia and Russia was the model for the Tibeto-Mongol treaty[3]. Lost for decades, the original treaty was discovered in Mongolia several years ago[4]. Its English version is kept at The National Archives in London[5]. The copy was handed by the Russian government to Buchanan, together with a dispatch written by the Russian State Councillor in Urga Yakovlevich Korostovetz[6]. Signed in the Mongolian capital Urga on 11 January, 1913 (according to the Gregorian calendar), in the document the Dalai Lama “approves and recognises the formation of an independent Mongol State, and the proclamation, in the year of the pig and the ninth day of the eleventh month, of Chjebzun Damba Lama of the yellow faith as ruler of the country” (art. 1), while the Bogd Khaan “approves and recognises the formation of an independent (Thibetan) State and the proclamation of the Dalai Lama as ruler of Thibet” (art. 2)[7].

The text has a particular importance in the perspective of the future Tibetan events of the second half of the twentieth century, since it is an international treaty between Tibet and another country, without any Chinese action, denying Beijing’s suzerainty.

This treaty raised some questions. First of all regarding the validity of the treaty, since Western diplomacies were not sure about the authorization given to Dorjiev to sign the treaty in the name of the Dalai Lama[8]. On this issue, Sazanov himself had some doubts[9]. Korostovetz wrote about “absence of legal rights of the signatories (…) and does not merit the title of an International act”, but according to the Russian State Councillor the treaty was useful against the Chinese[10].

Regardless, the attempt to apply international law, as it was understood in the West, to two realities whose political and diplomatic history was explicated in mechanisms that were totally different compared to the formality of the European chancelleries is an unreasonable attempt in a historical perspective. It is not possible to relegate and to interpret the issue of the legality of the independence of Tibet and Mongolia only in the light of Western international law. The two countries were acting within the framework of Tibetan Buddhism: the legitimacy of the power of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa and of the Bogd Khaan in Urga, even before the political logics, was based on the Buddhist idea of “body of manifestation” (sprul-sku) and the same connection between Ch’ing dynasty and Dalai Lama was fulfilled in the context of a link between a secular leader and his religious teacher (mchod-yon). The political and legal aspects of this situation have to be considered in the Buddhist light and accepted in their concrete developments. It is impossible to impose a full overlap with the international system that came out of the Peace of Westphalia in the West. It would not be correct to accuse the diplomats of the time regarding their inability to separate their own legal systems from oriental institutions, but in contemporary research this is absolutely necessary.

There were different opinions regarding the Dalai Lama’s involvement with the treaty. According to John Jordan, British ambassador to Beijing, in fact “it appears that the Dalai Lama took the initiative in negotiating this compact which formally declares the separation from China and the independence of Thibet and Mongolia”[11]. Jordan wrote in his letter to Sir Edward Grey, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs: “the two States agree to uphold the Buddhist religion and to assist each other against external or internal dangers”[12]. On 9 March, 1913 the Government of India wrote to the Secretary of State for India Robert Crewe-Milnes that “political officer in Sikkim should be instructed to write to Dalai Lama informing him that His Majesty’s Government, having heard a report that the agreement has been concluded, wish to know whether it was authorized by his Holiness, and, if so, what are the terms of the agreement”[13]. In the opinion of Grey “in the absence of evidence as to the legal rights of the signatories, the document does not possess any political significance”[14]. According to the sources of David Macdonald, British Trade Agent in Ya-tung (Gro-mo), the Dalai Lama did not authorize signing the treaty between the two countries[15]. Regardless, at the same time Charles Alfred Bell wrote: “there can be no doubt that such an agreement would be welcome to the Dalai Lama in the present position of affairs”[16]. However, in the British perspective, that treaty had even another meaning, as Bell said: “It is also indubitable that the agreement, if acted on, may prove a source of considerable embarrassment to us, for Mongolian assistance under article 4 brings appreciably nearer the danger of Russian intervention in Thibet”[17]. Article 4 ensured mutual “assistance against external and internal dangers”. And since the supplies of arms and ammunition to the Mongols meant essentially Russian support, it was not difficult to consider military operations in Tibet in defence of Tibetan independence as operations essentially managed by the Russians. Russian weapons had been sent to Tibet by the Mongols, those same weapons used by the Tibetans to defeat the Chinese[18]. Article 4 was not a simple statement of principle, but a fact. Beyond the legal definition of the document, the Tibeto-Mongol Treaty was really operating. The British were worried also because of the religious link between Tibet and Mongolia, an ancient link that was a contemporary issue when many monks from Mongolia were moving to the monasteries of Tibet “to act with considerable effect as the apostles of Russian ideas and influence”[19].

On the way to Simla

In summary, the independence of the two countries was upsetting the 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente, when Russia and the United Kingdom renounced claims and interests in Tibet and returned the matter to the weak Ch’ing Empire. This was a solution that did not sustain the brunt of the crumbling of the Manchu imperial power and that had to be rethought in new geopolitical terms. However, dealing directly with the Russians on the issue of Tibet in March 1913 was likely to result in a Russian request for a redefinition of the status of Afghanistan (together with Persia and Tibet the other country at the centre of the Entente), as the Emir of Afghanistan had not recognized the agreement of 1907 and also some provisions had not yet been put in place[20].

Any British acceptance of the 1912 agreement signed between Russia and Mongolia had to be sufficient to ask for a revision of the status of Tibet, without inviting Russian requests for compensations:

Sir E. Grey would suggest, therefore, that in replying to the Russian Government’s request for a favourable reception of the recent Russo-Mongolian Treaty, the whole situation should be frankly laid before them, and a discussion invited of the bearing of this treaty upon the position of Thibet, but that in doing this His Majesty’s Government should not at first ask directly for a revision of the convention, but should merely invite the Russian Government to a discussion of the situation in the hope that by so doing a request for a quid pro quo might be avoided”[21].

However, the balances of the Anglo-Russian Entente had to consider the legitimate Tibetan and Mongolian objectives. The link between Lhasa and Urga threatened to become a wider link between Lhasa and Saint Petersburg: an old risk that was coming back as one of the possibilities, even if a remote one. It was necessary for the British to rethink their role in the area and to consider the idea of a Tibet that was (at least de facto) independent. It was the moment to collect the credit of friendship and benevolence accumulated in recent times with the thirteenth Dalai Lama and to define the situation in the clearest way. The problem of a formal recognition of the Tibetan independence, and an eventual subsequent British protectorate, would have troubled the international balances, but the Russian action in Mongolia was a danger and at the same time an opportunity to define the roles in High Asia.

These are the words about the Russian and British reaction to the Tibeto-Mongol Treaty written by George Ernest Morrison (the former correspondent of “The Times” from Beijing and the then Yüan Shih-k’ai’s political advisor) to Dudley Disraeli Braham:

Russian action in Mongolia does not, I imagine, directly concern Great Britain, but indirectly it is of very great consequence indeed, for you must remember that Mongols who live on the Mongolian border which borders on the province of Chihli and on the border of Manchuria have made it known, no doubt from interested motives, that Great Britain and Russia are acting in accord in protecting Mongolia and Tibet and that these two great Nations are privy to the Mongolian Tibetan agreement. Statements made at rare intervals in the House of Commons denying these suggestions can do little to interact the evidence furnished by the Mongols themselves”[22].

It is clear that the previous facts, in particular the treaty, are pillars of the political path that resulted in the Simla Accord of 1914. The negotiations for the accord were also the occasion for a direct Tibetan answer regarding the problem of the Dalai Lama’s authorization of the signing of the treaty. According to Crewe-Milnes (with Grey’s support[23]), the British had to question Lonchen (minister, blon-chen) Shatra (Bshad-sgras) about the matter[24]. His answer is explained in a telegram by the Government of India to the Marquess of Crewe, an answer that certifies the validity of the treaty:

He pretends to know nothing of conclusion of agreement in question, but does not deny that Thibet and Mongolia have all along had an alliance of mutual support and assistance, and that, irrespective of any new agreement, this is still in force. He adds that Dorjief was given two letters by Dalai Lama, the first of which laid down that the two countries should give each other help for benefit of Buddhism, while the second authorised Dorjief to work to this end. This second letter confers powers as wide as, if not wider than, those which Lonchen himself now holds; it was given to Dorjief when Dalai Lama was in Urga, despondent about help from China or His Majesty’s Government, and in close relations with Russia. To judge by phraseology of third article agreement of November 1912 between Russia and Mongolia, and by chain of thought which runs consecutively through series of Mongolian agreements which runs consecutively through series of Mongolian agreements, it appears quite probable that Russia inspired the Thibet-Mongolia agreement; and whether or not existence of new agreement is admitted by Dalai Lama, we see no reason why its existence should be considered uncertain, or why we should doubt that its terms are as Korostovets reported. Further, in absence of any provision in it for ratification, Dalai Lama may find difficulty in repudiating it even if he wants to do so, and would, in any case, have difficulty in refusing to Mongolia privileges for which it makes provision.

We think that, in these circumstances, it is safer to reckon on the agreement as really existing, and to get it produced openly”[25].

This telegram is certainly a document of extreme importance in the reconstruction of the Tibetan issue in the early twentieth century, but also in a more recent perspective. The treaty was clearly valid in the eyes of the government of India: Dorjiev had had a letter authorizing him to negotiate a treaty with Mongolia. For the British, who were negotiating with the Tibetans in Simla therefore the treaty had to be seriously considered and the logic of the negotiations had also to be linked to that agreement between Lhasa and Urga, at the origin of which Delhi could see a Russian hand.

* Matteo Miele (Frosinone, 1984) holds a Ph D in Political and Social Sciences, Program in Geopolitics, from the University of Pisa, where he is a Cultore della materia at the Department of Political Sciences. Between August 2011 and July 2012 he was a lecturer at the Sherubtse College, Royal University of Bhutan.


[1]     The National Archives (TNA), Sir G. Buchanan to Sir Edward Grey, January 17, 1913, FO 535/16, no. 30, p. 20.

[2]     Ibidem.

[3]     TNA, Despatch from Actual State Councillor Korostovets, dated Urga, January 6 (19), 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure 2 in no. 88, p. 67. In the English translation of the dispatch there is a mistake in dating the Russian-Mongolian Treaty according to the Gregorian calendar. The agreement dates back to October 21, 1912 of the Russian calendar, that is November 3, 1912 and not September 3, as indicated in the document. It could also be an error of the Confidential Print.

[4]     Phurbu Thinley, Tibet – Mongolia Treaty of 1913, a proof of Tibet’s independence: Interview, in “Phayul”, November 12, 2008, http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=23205 (29-11-2013); Digitized Tibetan Archives Material at Bonn University (DTA), Photographic copies of the text of the treaty between Tibet and Mongolia in Mongolian (original photocopied) and the recent Tibetan translation kept at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA), Document 1592_LTWA_833, Section B, Tibetan Historical Documents, http://www.dtab.uni-bonn.de/tibdoc/php/m_show.php?dokid=1592

[5]     TNA, Mongol-Thibetan Treaty, concluded at Urga December 29, 1912 (January 11, 1913), 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure 1 in no. 88, pp. 66-67.

[6]     TNA, Sir G. Buchanan to Sir Edward Grey, February 11, 1913, FO 535/16, no. 88, p. 66; TNA, Mongol-Thibetan Treaty, concluded at Urga December 29, 1912 (January 11, 1913), 1913, FO 535/16, no. 88, pp. 66-67; TNA, Despatch from Actual State Councillor Korostovets, dated Urga, January 6 (19), 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure 2 in no. 88, pp. 67-68.

[7]     TNA, Mongol-Thibetan Treaty, concluded at Urga December 29, 1912 (January 11, 1913), 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure 1 in no. 88, pp. 66-67.

[8]     TNA, Foreign Office to India Office, January 24, 1913, FO 535/16, no. 44, p. 30.

[9]     TNA, Sir G. Buchanan to Sir Edward Grey, February 8, 1913, FO 535/16, no. 80, p. 60.

[10]   TNA, Despatch from Actual State Councillor Korostovets, dated Urga, January 6 (19), 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure 2 in no. 88, pp. 67-68.

[11]   TNA, Sir J. Jordan to Sir Edward Grey, February 10, 1913, FO 535/16, no. 112, p. 80.

[12]   Ibidem.

[13]   TNA, Government of India to the Marquess of Crewe, March 9, 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure in No. 129, p. 94.

[14]   TNA, Sir Edward Grey to Sir G. Buchanan, March 11, 1913, FO 535/16, no. 130, p. 94.

[15]   TNA, British Trade Agent, Yatung, to the Political Officer, Sikkim, May 3, 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure 2 in No. 255, p. 255.

[16]   TNA, Political Officer, Sikkim, to the Government of India, May 9, 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure 1 in No. 255, p. 255.

[17]   Ibidem.

[18]   TNA, Foreign Office to India Office, March 17, 1913, FO 535/16, No. 137, p. 99.

[19]   Ibidem.

[20]   Ibidem, p. 98.

[21]   Ibidem, p. 99.

[22]   Letter by G. E. Morrison to D. D. Braham, February 18, 1913, in Lo Hui-Min (ed.), The Correspondence of G. E. Morrison 1912-1920, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2013, p. 90.

[23]   TNA, Foreign Office to India Office, November 24, 1913, FO 535/16, No. 439, p. 418.

[24]   TNA, India Office to Foreign Office, November 17, 1913, FO 535/16, No. 432, p. 412.

[25]   TNA, Government of India to the Marquess of Crewe, December 9, 1913, FO 535/16, Enclosure in No. 459, p. 442.


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