India’s “Tibet Card” in the Stand-Off with China: More Provocative than Productive

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 17

Image: Indian Army personnel present honors at a memorial service for Nyima Tenzin, a Special Frontier Force commando killed during Indian Army operations in eastern Ladakh on August 29-30. (Image source: Hindustan Times, September 8)


Tensions between India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have remained high ever since violent clashes occurred in the Galwan Valley region in mid-June, resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian Army soldiers and an undisclosed number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops (Jamestown, June 29; China Brief, July 15). A significant new development occurred on the night of August 29-30, when the Indian Army took control of strategic heights at the southern bank of the Pangong Tso, a lake in eastern Ladakh that straddles the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between India and China. The operation was significant: it was the first time since the eruption of tensions along the LAC in May that the Indian Army preempted the Chinese from unilaterally altering the status quo (The Telegraph, September 2).

Participating in this operation alongside regular Indian Army units were soldiers of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), an elite paratrooper unit that draws its personnel mainly from among the Tibetan exile community in India. An SFF company leader, Nyima Tenzin, lost his life that night when he stepped on a landmine, while another SFF soldier was injured. Tenzin’s cremation was conducted with full military honors. The coffin bearing his body was draped with the Indian and Tibetan flags, pro-India and Tibet slogans were raised, and a senior leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was present at the cremation. This was the first time that an SFF soldier’s death received so much publicity; previously, SFF personnel killed in operations were cremated quietly, without much fanfare (Hindustan Times, September 7).

Set up in the last days of the India-China border war in October-November 1962, the SFF functioned until recently as a covert force, but it has now emerged from the shadows. The highly publicized funeral accorded to Tenzin is widely believed to have been aimed at reminding Chinese leaders of India’s “Tibet card,” and signaling New Delhi’s willingness to use it. But how effective will this “card” be in bringing pressure on Beijing to pull back the PLA from areas it has illegally occupied along the disputed border since May? Could New Delhi’s publicizing of the SFF, and its flashing of the “Tibet card,” end up provoking Beijing rather than pressuring it?

India, China, and the Tibetans

India and China became neighbors only after the PRC’s annexation of Tibet in 1950. Underlying India and China’s differences on their border are their varying perceptions of the 1913-1914 Simla Convention, which established the McMahon Line—the border demarcation between Tibet and then-British India, and currently the northern border of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The PRC maintains that Tibet was not a sovereign state and therefore not a legitimate signatory to the agreement reached on the McMahon Line, which India treats as its legal national border with China.

Complicating the border issue and bilateral relations is the status of the Tibetans. In 1959, when the PLA crushed an uprising in Lhasa, the 14th Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of his Tibetan followers fled to India. In the decades since, several waves of Tibetans have crossed into India. There are around 100,000 Tibetans living in India today, and the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile—the Central Tibetan Authority (CTA)—is situated in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala. This puts India squarely in the middle of the China-Tibet conflict.

Right from the 1950s, China was suspicious of India’s intentions regarding Tibet: Chairman Mao was reportedly “convinced of Indian ‘expansionist’ designs on Tibet” (The Hindu, October 22, 2012). Beijing believed that India was working with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to support Tibetan rebels (Hindustan Times, September 21, 2016). Chinese analysts maintain that the Indian government is using Tibetans living in exile as a “political tool,” and that it supports the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause in order “to coerce or even split China” (Global Times, August 5, 2012; Global Times, March 27, 2019). Such perceptions have likely gained strength following reports of the SFF’s participation in India’s recent military operations at Pangong Tso.

The Special Frontier Force

Set up with American support, the SFF was initially comprised of Kham insurgents armed and trained by the CIA to fight against the PRC government in the 1950s. Subsequently, Tibetan refugees in India and Gorkhas were recruited into the SFF. The SFF was established to operate behind enemy lines inside the PRC-controlled Tibetan Autonomous Region during the 1962 war (Indian Express, September 13). However, its personnel never got to fight in the 1962 war, as the war ended soon after the group came into being. SFF personnel were reportedly never used in operations against China, or even deployed along the LAC. According to an Indian government official, it was only after the situation along the LAC deteriorated seriously in mid-June that India brought in this overwhelmingly Tibetan force to the disputed border area. [1]

India’s use of the SFF has evoked a strong response from Beijing. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it would “firmly oppose any country providing convenience in any form for the ‘Tibet independence’ forces’ separatist activities” (PRC Foreign Ministry, September 2). Chinese commentators have dismissed the SFF as neither “special” nor “elite,” and described its Tibetan personnel as mere “cannon fodder” for the Indian Army. They further warned India that, were it to play the Tibet card and support Tibetan “secessionism,” there would be “consequences”—involving “countermeasures” that would inflict “pain” on India (Global Times, September 3; Global Times, September 4).

Image: At a September 2 press conference, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying asserted that “We firmly oppose any country providing convenience in any form for the ‘Tibet independence’ forces’ separatist activities,” and referenced “the connection between so-called ‘Tibetans in exile’ and the Indian border troops.” (Image source: PRC Foreign Ministry)

Potential Indian Challenges to Chinese Sovereignty Over Tibet

Prospects for using the Tibet issue as leverage vis-à-vis China have shifted in recent years. The present government waved this “card” on the very day of its inauguration: among the special invitees to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 swearing-in was CTA President Lobsang Sangay, who received treatment similar to the South Asian heads of state in attendance. In December 2016, President Pranab Mukherjee met the Dalai Lama at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan (India’s presidential palace) as part of an event to honor Nobel Prize winners. A few months later, the Tibetan spiritual leader visited Arunachal Pradesh. Then in July 2017, amidst mounting tensions over the standoff at Doklam, Sangay was permitted to unfurl the Tibetan flag at Pangong Tso (China Brief, May 31, 2018).

By early 2018, it was evident that New Delhi’s open courting of the Dalai Lama was not fruitful. Rather than pressing China to rethink unfriendly positions, India’s use of the “Tibet card” only raised Beijing’s hackles— prompting not only a hardening of its hostile positions vis-à-vis India in global forums, but also an increase in PLA incursions along the LAC. In fact, China’s aggressive activity at Doklam, a strategic tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan, could be attributed to India’s use of the “Tibet card.” With the possibility of another standoff at Doklam looming, India was anxious to reset its relations with China. It began distancing itself from the Tibetans, and in February 2018 India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a directive to government functionaries to stay away from CTA events (China Brief, May 31, 2018). For two years thereafter India avoided associating with the Dalai Lama or showing support for the Tibetan cause. Events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Tibetans’ flight to India were low-key. Most noticeably, in May 2019 Sangay was not invited to the inaugural of the BJP government’s second five-year term (The Wire, May 30, 2019).

However, as a result of the summer crisis, calls for use of the “Tibet card” have grown in recent months. Proponents say that India should challenge the very legitimacy of the Chinese claim over Tibet; “review” the recognition it extended to Tibet as a nominal autonomous region of China; and give the Dalai Lama and the CTA more prominence in Indian political circles and public events (Rediff, July 3, Economic Times, June 13 and Business World, July 14).

Furthermore, the high-profile funeral accorded to Tenzin was not the first time that the Indian government has waved the “Tibet card” in the recent crisis. In late June—just ten days after the brutal face-off between the PLA and Indian Army soldiers in the Galwan Valley—Pema Khandu, the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, referred to the LAC as “the Indo-Tibet border” (significantly, not “the India-China border”) in an interaction with Indian soldiers. While Khandu is not a part of the central government, he belongs to the ruling BJP and heads the government in Arunachal Pradesh, which the PRC claims as its own territory as part of “southern Tibet” (The Statesman, June 24).

Temporary Gains from “Appeasement Diplomacy”

India’s shelving of the “Tibet card” from February 2018 did improve relations with China. It paved the way for informal summits between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan in China in April 2018, and at Mamallapuram in India in October 2018. These meetings were opportunities for the two leaders to engage in face-to-face discussions, and did generate a more cooperative spirit. China seemed more sensitive to Indian concerns: Beijing supported a United Nations Security Council resolution designating Masood Azhar (the Pakistan-based chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammed) as a terrorist, after blocking previous attempts to do so (China Brief, February 13).  However, Beijing’s more cooperative stance was limited to just a few issues and was also short-lived, as demonstrated by the PLA’s repeated violations of the LAC and of several border agreements since May (China Brief, November 1, 2019).

Proponents of playing the “Tibet card” argue that India should therefore abandon its “defensive approach” on the Tibet question, on grounds that its “appeasement diplomacy” is perceived as weakness by Beijing and “exploited ruthlessly” (DailyO, July 24). They point out that reports of the SFF’s role have galvanized the Tibetan community in India and abroad, which could not only prompt more Tibetans to join the SFF, but also boost Tibetan enthusiasm for resistance against Chinese rule (The Print, September 10). Per one Indian official, this is an opportunity for India to explore and exploit. [2]

Provocative, But Not Productive

However, waving the “Tibet card” at China didn’t work in the past (as India’s experience in the 2014-2018 period reveals). The same official noted above also indicated that India’s erratic use of the “Tibet card” is to blame for its “past failures to produce results.” [3] One reason for the “Tibet card” not proving productive in the past could be that it is simply not as strong as its proponents believe it to be. Revising India’s position on Tibet would require India to walk away from several past agreements with Beijing: under a 1954 agreement, India accepted Tibet as a “region” of China, and a 2003 bilateral agreement recognized the “Tibet Autonomous Region” as part of the PRC (China Brief, May 31, 2018).

For China, Tibet is a “core issue” and any change in India’s policy on the matter would be treated in Beijing as “challenging China’s territorial integrity.” It would rile China enough to “heighten mistrust and hostility in Beijing without inflicting any real pain” (The Print, September 14). Beijing could even see it as a major provocation. India’s support to the Dalai Lama was an important reason for China waging war on India in 1962. The possibility of a similar scenario unfolding now cannot be ruled out, especially if India’s moves trigger unrest inside Tibet.

Without a solid “Tibet card” in its hands, India’s deployment of this card would result in needling China. Chinese commentators have hinted that it could provoke Beijing to revive support to insurgents in India’s northeastern territory (Global Times, September 3). This could re-ignite multiple insurgencies in a once-turbulent region that is now relatively calm. By bringing the SFF out of the closet, the Modi government may have blundered: the SFF’s value to India lay in its discreet use in covert military operations, perhaps even inside Tibet. That value has now been diminished with the existence of the SFF publicly exposed.


Given China’s extreme prickliness on the Tibet issue, India’s use of the “Tibet card” is unlikely to prompt or pressure it to vacate territories on the Indian side of the LAC that it occupied in recent months. Rather, Beijing will see it as a provocation—a move aimed not just at embarrassing it, but also weakening its control over Tibet. Unlike earlier Indian attempts at projecting New Delhi’s closeness to the Dalai Lama, the SFF poses a real threat to China, as it could inspire young Tibetans to once again rebel against Beijing. India can expect a strong rejoinder from China in the coming weeks and months.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher and journalist based in Bangalore, India. She has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues for The Diplomat, Asia Times and Geopolitics.


[1] Author’s Interview, Official in India’s Ministry of Defense, New Delhi, September 18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.