At a funeral last week in the mountains of northern India, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s top aides respected a Tibetan soldier killed on the front lines of deadly clashes with China.
Surrounded by troops waving the flags of India and Tibet, Ram Madhav laid a wreath in front of the coffin during a ceremony that paid military honors to the deceased. In a now-deleted tweet, Modi̵7;s ruling national secretary general, the Bharatiya Janata party, said he hoped the soldier’s death would lead to peace along the “Indo-Tibetan border”.
The rare recognition of a secret Indian military unit with Tibetan soldiers by itself threatened to heat up a border dispute that has killed dozens since May and closed 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 that is also worth fighting in places from Xinjiang to Hong Kong and Taiwan. .
“Indians send a message: a very strong message, which they probably haven’t sent for decades,” said Robbie Barnett, who led Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program until 2018 and wrote about the region since the 1980s. “The participation of exiled Tibetans and the use of exiled Tibetan icons, images and flags are enormously significant for China’s interpretation.”
While the foreign ministers of India and China agreed on the need for moderation during a meeting in Moscow last week, tensions along the border remain higher than at any time since they resumed. the hostilities. Both sides continue to increase forces in the disputed area, which is key to controlling the vital Himalayan mountain passes, with warning shots this month along the actual control line for the first time in more than four decades. .
In recent weeks, China has moved fighter jets and heavy bombers to the Indian border from the Central Theater Command, Beijing’s strategic reserve, which was not done even when the two sides went to war in 1962, according to India’s defense officials. you don’t have to identify yourself because of the rules for talking to the media. China’s defense ministry did not answer questions by fax.
While neither country has incentives to go to war, the growing intensity and persistence of friction could cause them to run into them, according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Eurasia group last week increased the likelihood that border skirmishes could lead to a more sustained military conflict of up to 15%.
“An advertising or involuntary incident at a local flash point could now really fuel a broader conflict than either government wants,” said Narang, who wrote a book on regional nuclear powers ’deterrence strategies.
Tibet, an area about the size of South Africa that stretches across the Himalayas, has been a point of controversy in India’s relations with China since the Dalai Lama fled to the southern nation. Asian after a failed insurrection in 1959. He established a government — exiled to the northern Indian city of Dharamshala, to the displeasure of Beijing. Only in India recognized Tibet as part of China in 2003.
India first established the Tibetan refugee military unit, known as the Special Border Force, just after the 1962 India-China war to conduct covert operations behind Chinese lines, according to Jayadeva Ranade, a member of the Advisory Council of the National Security Council. Like U.S. special forces, all members are trained as a para-commando and operate under cover in conjunction with the Indian Army.
“Recognition is a clear message to China that its compatriots are fighting alongside us,” said Ranade, who heads the Center for China Analysis and Strategy, a New Delhi research group. “I don’t remember this force being recognized like that before.”
The Special Border Force participated last month in a night raid to capture elevated strategic terrain and stay on the front lines, according to Indian defense officers who asked not to be identified.
However, both India and China are trying to downplay the importance of Tibetan soldiers.
Indian Army spokesman Colonel Aman Anand declined to answer questions about the unit, but said the military was committed to maintaining peace and tranquility while protecting national integrity and sovereignty in all costs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to any requests for comment.
Drills from China
China has downplayed reports from Tibetans, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters Monday to ask India about the issue.
“China’s position is clear,” he said. “We strongly oppose any country facilitating, by any means, the separatist activities of the ‘Tibetan independence’ forces.”
While the government has avoided igniting the situation, China’s state media have released images over the past week of military fire drills in Tibet with tanks, fighter jets and even drones that could carry food. to the soldiers during the long winter which is expected to begin soon.
The coffin of Nyima Tenzin, the Tibetan soldier who died, was wrapped in the flags of India and Tibet. Madhav, the BJP official who attended, understood the meaning: he wrote a book published in 2014 about the conflict called “Restless Neighbors: India and China after 50 Years of War.” Madhav did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why he deleted his tweet.
Although the Indian government has not officially recognized Tibetan forces, Tenzin’s public funeral and Madhav’s attendance have sparked support for unity with the exiled Tibetan community, according to Gonpo Dhundup, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress. an organization that has more than 30,000 members and fights for the freedom of the region.
“I strongly feel this younger generation will join the SFF in greater numbers, ”Dhundup said by telephone from McLeod Ganj, outside Dharamshala.“ Recognition, however brief, has sent a message acknowledging our contribution. “.
– With the assistance of Colum Murphy and Jing Li
(Updates with new image after the 11th paragraph)