“Tibet Lost in Translation: Sovereignty, Suzerainty and International Order Transformation, 1904-1906.” Journal of Contemporary China. (2017)

Abstract: How did Tibet become part of the modern Chinese state? Even today, as Tibet is an internationally recognized part of the People’s Republic of China, the evasive meaning of “Chinese suzerainty over Tibet” is a reverberant point of contention in nationalist debates. The question of whether “suzerainty” more strongly implicates Tibetan independence or Chinese sovereignty is a false controversy that has impeded progress in understanding China’s transition from empire to nation-state. This article examines Anglo-Chinese diplomatic negotiations following the 1904 British invasion of Tibet using newly uncovered Chinese archival documents to demonstrate the central role played by the appropriation and manipulation of international legal discourse in determining Tibet’s status in the international system and offers a generalizable theory of the mechanics of international order transformation.

Invited Talks

“Manipulating Diplomatic Success and Failure at the Simla Convention, 1913-1914,” Oxford University, Invited Presentation sponsored by Kreddha International Peace Council, September 25-26, 2017.

“Diplomatic (Mis)translation and Empire: Misreadings and Manipulation in Sino-British Dealings with Tibet,” Columbia University SIPA, Invited Lecture sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Modern Tibetan Studies Program, February 2, 2016.


The Mechanics of International Order Transformation: Anglo-Chinese-Tibetan Relations Between the Sinosphere and Westphalia 1890-1937.

How did Tibet become part of the modern Chinese state and how did China come to control nearly all the territorial holdings of its imperial predecessors? This dissertation examines China’s transition from empire to nation-state as an illustrative case of how individual states experience transformation in the nature of international order. While conventional scholarship has focused on the structural conditions that give rise to such changes, this research provides a precise account of how exactly states from a previous international order are reconfigured to constitute a new system. My analysis assumes that there are no predestined connections between norms and institutions of different international systems. From this perspective, I contend that the status of an individual state is a function of the discourse, words and linguistic codes used to establish connections between its former status and the new international order. The most important asset for states is knowledge of the rules of the ascendant order. This knowledge gives them greater control over the way that they are rendered legible in the new system, which, in turn, determines whether they will survive as an independent state or be subordinated by another nation. These conclusions are drawn from investigation of Anglo-Chinese-Tibetan relations during the transition from East Asia’s historical, hierarchic Sinocentric world order to the contemporary global Westphalian state system using fine-grained, multilingual, textual analysis of archival records collected during 15 months of fieldwork in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (Taiwan), India and the UK. My findings demonstrate the agency of individual actors within structural change and the extent to which command of discourse can empower weak actors to punch above their weight.

Works in Progress

“Controlling the Narrative and International Order in the South China Sea: Appropriation of International Legal Discourse in Sino-American Rhetoric.”

“Agency in International Order Transformation: Insights from the Appropriation of International Legal Discourse at the 1914 Simla Convention between Great Britain, China and Tibet.”

“Indeterminacy and International Systems Change: Discourse and the Mechanics of International Order Transformation.”

“Tibet’s Twenty Years Crisis: Indeterminacy, International Systems Change and Sino-Tibetan Relations, 1919-1937.”