The United States has said governments must not decide religious matters such as choosing the Dalai Lama amid fears that China will appoint a successor to the Tibetan spiritual leader aligned to its interests.

Laura Stone, the acting deputy US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy on Tuesday that religious decisions should be made by religious organisations and not the state.

According to Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama reincarnates after his death – and the new person is appointed his successor. China, however, claims it has the authority to decide who succeeds the religious leader. The 14th Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, is 83 years old. He was appointed when he was two years old and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. China considers him to be a separatist promoting an independent Tibetan state.

Stone told Senator Cory Gardner that the panel’s question on possible US response to Chinese decision to impose a Dalai Lama on the Tibetan people was an important signal to Beijing that the US was watching the matter closely “at very senior levels”.

“I wouldn’t want to prejudge exactly how this, a future scenario, would roll out but I would like to lay a marker that that is the clear position of the United States government and, I think, widely supported within the American society, that those are the kinds of decisions that should be made by religious communities on their own and without outside interference,” she said.

Gardner said it was clear that the US Congress would not recognise a Chinese imposition on the Tibetan people.