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 honours. 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.
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. “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. 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.