DHARAMSALA, India (Reuters) - Tibet's leadership in exile said on Tuesday its mountain homeland was occupied by China and called for more autonomy, days after Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed an unceasing fight against "separatism" by the Dalai Lama and his followers.
As Beijing marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the India-based government-in-exile also said it was not for China to decide who should succeed Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, on his death.
"Tibet is under occupation today," said Lobsang Sangay, who took charge of the government four years ago, leaving the Dalai Lama, an octogenarian Buddhist monk, to dedicate himself to his spiritual mission.
Sangay, speaking at a news conference in the Himalayan retreat of Dharamsala, objected to a statement last week by President Xi Jinping that China would never accept proposals for autonomy by the "Dalai group".
He refused to accept China's assertion of full sovereignty over Tibet, but reiterated a long-standing call for a "Middle Way" of autonomy that falls short of full independence.
The decades-old dispute centres on whether Tibet, a vast plateau with a population of just over 3 million people, is an integral part of China.
Beijing says it has historically been part of China. Sangay disagreed: "Tibet was an independent country and historians don't dispute that," he told reporters.
Agreeing to tread a middle way of Tibetan autonomy would benefit China, he added, because it would build trust with its neighbours.
"If you find a peaceful solution to the Tibet issue, China's soft power will increase because the international community has increasing scepticism and anxiousness towards the Chinese government," he said.
China calls the Middle Way as "a splittist demand", showing little appetite for negotiations and calculating that it may be able to cement control over Tibet by hand-picking a successor to the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace laureate.
That runs counter to the conviction of his followers that the reincarnation of their leader, the most recent in a monastic line dating from the 14th century, should be chosen according to his own instructions.
"As far as the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama is concerned, it is the sole prerogative of His Holiness," said Sangay.
This year marks several sensitive anniversaries for the remote region that China has ruled with an iron fist since 1950, when Communist troops marched in and took control.
It also marked the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 following an abortive uprising.
Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Clarence Fernandez