At a funeral last week in the mountains of northern India, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s top aides paid respect to a Tibetan soldier killed on the front lines of deadly clashes with China.
Surrounded by troops waving the flags of both India and Tibet, Ram Madhav laid a wreath before the coffin during a ceremony that gave the deceased man full military honors. In a now-deleted tweet, the national general secretary of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said he hoped the soldier’s death would lead to peace along the “Indo-Tibetan border.”
The rare recognition of a secretive Indian military unit with Tibetan soldiers by itself threatened to escalate a border dispute that has killed dozens since May and tanked economic ties between the world’s most-populous nations. Even more significant was the suggestion that India questioned China’s sovereignty over Tibet -- a red line for Beijing, which sees separatism as a cause also worth fighting for in places from Xinjiang to Hong Kong to Taiwan.
“The Indians are sending a message -- a very strong message, which they probably have not sent for decades,” said Robbie Barnett, who headed Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program until 2018 and has written about the region since the 1980s. “The involvement of exiled Tibetans and the use of exiled Tibetan icons, images and flags, is hugely significant for China’s interpretation.”
While India and China’s foreign ministers agreed on the need for restraint during a meeting in Moscow last week, tensions along the border remain higher than at any point since hostilities resumed. Both sides continue to ramp up forces in the disputed area, which is key to controlling vital Himalayan mountain passes, with warning shots fired this month along the Line of Actual Control for the first time in more than four decades.
In the past few weeks China moved fighter planes and heavy bombers to the Indian frontier from the Central Theater Command, Beijing’s strategic reserve, which wasn’t done even when the two sides went to war in 1962, according to Indian defense officials, who asked not to be identified due to rules for speaking with the media. China’s defense ministry didn’t reply to faxed questions.
While neither country has an incentive to go to war, the increasing intensity and persistence of friction may cause them to stumble into one, according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eurasia Group last week raised the probability that boundary skirmishes may lead to a more sustained military conflict to 15%.
“An advertent or inadvertent incident at a local flash point could now really fuel a broader conflict that neither government wants,” said Narang, who wrote a book about the deterrence strategies of regional nuclear powers.
Tibet, an area roughly the size of South Africa that stretches across the Himalayas, has been a point of contention in India’s relations with China ever since the Dalai Lama fled to the South Asian nation after a failed uprising in 1959. He set up a government-in-exile in the northern Indian town of Dharamshala, much to Beijing’s displeasure. India only recognized Tibet as part of China in 2003.
India first established the military unit of Tibetan refugees, known as the Special Frontier Force, just after the 1962 India-China war to carry out covert operations behind Chinese lines, according to Jayadeva Ranade, a member of the National Security Council Advisory Board. Akin to U.S. special forces, every member is trained as a para-commando and operates undercover in conjunction with the Indian military.
“The recognition is a clear message to China that your countrymen are fighting alongside us,” said Ranade, who heads the Centre of China Analysis and Strategy, a research group in New Delhi. “I don’t remember this force being acknowledged like this earlier.”
The Special Frontier Force participated in a nighttime raid last month to capture strategic high ground and remain on the front lines, according to the Indian defense officials who asked not to be identified.
Still, both India and China are seeking to downplay the significance of the Tibetan soldiers.
Indian Army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand declined to respond to questions about the unit, but said the military was committed to maintaining peace and tranquility while also protecting national integrity and sovereignty at all costs. The foreign ministry didn’t reply to a request seeking a comment.
China has downplayed reports of the Tibetans, with foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin telling reporters on Monday to ask India about the issue.
“China’s position is clear,” he said. “We firmly oppose any country facilitating through any means the ‘Tibetan independence’ forces’ separatist activities.”
While the government has avoided inflaming the situation, China’s state-owned media has released footage over the past week of live-fire military exercises in Tibet involving tanks, fighter jets and even drones that could bring food to soldiers during the long winter expected to start soon.
The coffin of Nyima Tenzin, the Tibetan soldier who died, was draped with the flags of India and Tibet. Madhav, the BJP official who attended, understood the significance: He wrote a book released in 2014 about the conflict called “Uneasy Neighbours: India and China After 50 years of the War.” Madhav didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment on why he deleted his tweet.
Even though the Indian government hasn’t officially acknowledged the Tibetan forces, Tenzin’s public funeral and the attendance by Madhav has roused support for the unit with the Tibetan exile community, according to Gonpo Dhundup, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a body that has more 30,000 members and is fighting for the region’s freedom.
“I strongly feel that younger generation will join the SFF in larger numbers,” Dhundup said by phone from McLeod Ganj outside Dharamshala. “The acknowledgment, no matter how brief, has sent out a message that our contribution will be recognized.”