After South China Sea, US, China Set To Wrestle At ‘Roof Of The World’; Washington Begins Himalayan Push

A geopolitical drama is unfolding in the shadow of the world’s highest mountains. The United States, long on the back foot in the Indo-Pacific, is now making a bold move on the Tibetan plateau. But this isn’t just about America and China—India finds itself at the center of this high-altitude power play.

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The United States, which was for quite some time in a defensive stance in the Indo-Pacific region, is now shifting to an offensive approach against China on the issue of Tibet.

This strategic shift is playing out on Indian soil, adding a new dimension to the already tense U.S.-China-India relationship. With ongoing trade disputes and Taiwan issues, Tibet’s emergence as a flashpoint further complicates this global rivalry.

The US Congress recently passed the “Resolve Tibet Act,” which advocates dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama. This act is a sharp jab at Beijing’s “One China Policy” and a clear sign that Washington is changing its tune.

History Of US-Tibet Relations

Imagine a century-long story filled with covert operations, spiritual leaders, and mountain warriors. That’s the tale of Tibet, and it’s heating up once again. The history of U.S.-Tibet relations is complex and often divided.

Aaron Bekemeyer, in his paper for ‘History 363’ titled ‘The Nuances of the US-Tibet Relationship,’ argues that ‘US-Tibet relations allowed Washington flexibility to avoid total rapprochement with China and maintain Tibet as a potential political tool in Sino-US and other international relations.’

Rewind to the 1950s… After the Communist Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1949 and 1950, the United States covertly supported various forms of Tibetan anti-Chinese resistance as part of its opposition to the Communist regime. However, following the Sino-U.S. rapprochement in 1972, Tibet’s utility as an American foreign policy tool quickly diminished.

For the past century or so, Tibet’s history has been marked by confusion and conflict over its international political status. In the first half of the twentieth century, Tibet enjoyed de facto independence. Despite Chinese claims to sovereignty, Tibet secured British recognition of its autonomy in 1914 and maintained a military and diplomatic defense against Chinese encroachments. These factors allowed Tibet to conduct its own affairs until 1949.

According to  Bekemeyer, the US, involved in the region only from the 1940s, recognized Tibetan autonomy but stopped short of full diplomatic recognition of Tibet as an independent nation. However, in 1950, after Mao Zedong’s Communists took power in China, the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, and Tibetan representatives were coerced into signing the Seventeen-Point Agreement, which absorbed Tibet into China.

Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. provided covert support for a Tibetan ‘Guerrilla force’ and non-military support for the Dalai Lama. This support continued until the normalization of Sino-American relations in 1972.

By 1974, the U.S. had ceased its support, including cutting off the subsidy to the Dalai Lama and his government. Consequently, Tibet became a lesser issue in U.S. foreign policy, and Washington never again matched the level of commitment it had displayed in the 1950s and 1960s.

The US Tibet Policy Bill

This month, the US Congress passed the Resolve Tibet Act, a legislation advocating for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Tibet’s status and governance. The Act calls on Beijing to resume dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama.

This significant expansion bolsters the Dalai Lama’s authority in choosing his successor and mandates decisive US action against Chinese interference, effectively rejecting China’s long-held ‘One China Policy’ and its authoritative grip over Tibet. The legislation marks a notable shift in Washington’s approach under President Joe Biden, signaling a more assertive stance against Beijing.

Conversely, China has issued warnings to the US regarding the Tibet policy bill. Officially referring to Tibet as Xizang, China stated in April 2024 that it would only engage in dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama, not with officials of the Tibetan government in exile based in India. Additionally, China has ruled out discussions on the Dalai Lama’s long-standing demand for autonomy for his remote Himalayan homeland.

Interestingly, Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all met the Dalai Lama. However, Donald Trump, who had a different stance on Tibet, did not meet him. Current US President Joe Biden has also yet to meet the Dalai Lama.

However, the Dalai Lama has reached the US for medical treatment and has been received very warmly by his supporters. It is unclear whether the Dalai Lama will meet any U.S. officials during his trip.

Earlier, the Dalai Lama stated that he does not seek independence from China but rather autonomy. While China continues to regard Tibet as its territory, Tibet does not consider itself subject to Chinese rule and continues to advocate for its independence.

Dalai-Lama (1)
File Image: The Dalai Lama Via Wikipedia

Role Of India In U.S.-China Dispute Over Tibet

Recently, India’s role in the U.S.-China dispute over Tibet gained attention when a group of seven U.S. lawmakers visited Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, to meet the 88-year-old Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

Nancy Pelosi, after the meeting, stated, “The passage of this bill is a message to the Chinese government that we have clarity in our thinking and our understanding of this issue of the freedom of Tibet.”

Tibet’s significance in U.S. foreign policy extends beyond Sino-U.S. relations. At the very least, Washington’s position on Tibet has implications for its relations with India. Understanding India’s role requires knowing about the Special Frontier Force (SFF).

The Special Frontier Force (SFF)

The Special Frontier Force (SFF), also known as the Vikas Battalion, has played a crucial role in preventing Chinese occupation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.

The SFF was established on November 14, 1962, in the aftermath of the Sino-India war. Following the war, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) collaborated to train a 5,000-strong Tibetan force for potential missions against China.

According to Tibetologist Claude Arpi, in an interview with ‘India Today,’ the force was the brainchild of former IB director B.N. Mullick and the CIA.

In the 1950s, the CIA and IB set up Mustang Base in Nepal’s Mustang region to train Tibetans in guerrilla warfare. The Mustang rebels facilitated the Dalai Lama’s escape to India during the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. The CIA, a civilian foreign intelligence service of the U.S. government, had been involved in a covert program to train Tibetan guerrillas to combat Chinese forces in Tibet since the 1950s.

The SFF is currently based in Chakrata, Uttarakhand, and its insignia features a snow lion. The exact current strength of the force remains unknown.

The SFF gained attention following the Ladakh clash, particularly after the death of Tenzin Nyima, a Tibetan trooper, in a landmine blast at Pangong Tso. Images of his body wrapped in Indian and Tibetan flags brought focus to this secretive security force of trained mountain warriors.

The SFF operates under the operational control of the Indian Army but remains a separate entity due to its inclusion of Tibetan refugees and international implications. Military experts note that the SFF comprises both men and women who receive training equivalent to that of elite commandos.

The SFF has been instrumental in several major military operations, including Operation Eagle (1971 war with Pakistan), Operation Bluestar (1984 clearing of Amritsar’s Golden Temple), Operation Meghdoot (1984 securing of the Siachen glacier), and Operation Vijay (1999 Kargil war with Pakistan), as well as numerous counter-insurgency operations. Despite its significant contributions, the SFF has largely operated in the shadows.

Image for Representation: Paratroopers with U.S. Army Alaska’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, snowshoe across the drop zone during Exercise Spartan Pegasus Feb. 24 at Deadhorse, Alaska. Spartan Pegasus allows USARAK to maximize training resources across multiple units to maintain readiness in a wide array of mission sets across the Arctic and Pacific region. (U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. Daniel Love

Shifts In India’s Tibet Policy

The Tibetan movement is currently facing significant survival challenges.

On June 5, 2024, The Diplomat, an international online news magazine based in Washington, DC, reported that India plans to rename more than two dozen places in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region in a tit-for-tat move against China renaming places in Arunachal Pradesh.

According to the report, the Army’s Information Warfare Division has finalized the list of renamed places and will soon release it.

Like the US, India’s stance on Tibet has not remained consistent historically. Amid escalating tensions with China, there has been a shift in India’s Tibet policy.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and sought refuge in India, arriving on March 31 of that year. Upon reaching India, he established a government-in-exile.

In June 2003, India officially acknowledged Tibet as part of China following a meeting between then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. However, Indian officials clarified that this recognition was indirect, focusing on the autonomous Tibetan region rather than the entirety of Tibet, which is a significant portion of China.

This policy shift marked increased public engagement by the Indian government with the Dalai Lama. For instance, in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government in exile in India, to his swearing-in ceremony. However, Modi did not extend an invitation in 2019 for his second term, prioritizing a smooth summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Currently, India’s approach to Tibetans in India is guided by executive policy rather than law. While this policy has improved welfare measures for Tibetans in India, it lacks legal backing on core Tibetan issues. Therefore, there is a growing call for India to adopt a more assertive stance on Tibet in its dealings with China.

As the Dalai Lama ages and questions of succession loom, the stakes are higher than ever. Will India forge its own Tibet policy? Can the US successfully challenge China’s grip on the region?

  • Shubhangi Palve is a defense and aerospace journalist. Before joining the EurAsian Times, she worked for E.T. Prime. In this capacity, she focused on covering defense strategies and the defense sector from a financial perspective. She offers over 15 years of extensive experience in the media industry, spanning print, electronic, and online domains.
  • Contact the author at shubhapalve (at) gmail (dot) com.