The State Department on Wednesday appointed an official to oversee US policy on Tibet, the latest sign of the Trump administration’s growing outspokenness on Chinese human rights issues as relations between Washington and Beijing continue to deteriorate.
The official, Robert Destro, an assistant secretary of state, will serve as US special coordinator for Tibetan issues and will be tasked with “protecting the distinct religious, cultural and linguistic identity of Tibetans, improving respect for their human rights, and much, much more”, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Destro will also “lead US efforts to promote dialogue” between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, said Pompeo.
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Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s representatives last met in 2010.
One of Destro’s first acts in his new role will be receiving senior officials from the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – the Tibetan government-in-exile – at the State Department on Thursday, according to Ngodup Tsering, who serves as North American envoy for both the India-based CTA and the Dalai Lama.
Tsering said he will be attending along with CTA president Lobsang Sangay.
A State Department spokesperson would not confirm the meeting, but said in a statement that officials had met with Sangay “regularly”, adding that Destro would “continue to seek out further opportunities to meet with Tibetan representatives”.
“Consistent with the Tibetan Policy Act, Assistant Secretary Destro commits to maintaining close contact with Tibetan cultural, political, and religious leaders, including by seeking to travel to Tibetan areas of the PRC, and to Tibetan refugee settlements in India and Nepal,” the spokesperson said.
Pompeo’s announcement comes amid public pressure from lawmakers and rights groups urging the administration to appoint someone to the special coordinator role, a requirement of a 2002 law known as the Tibetan Policy Act, which codified Washington’s official position of support for the Tibetan people.
The position had been left vacant since the end of the Obama administration.
Matteo Mecacci, president of Washington-based advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet, said his organisation welcomed the announcement, but was disappointed that the official was of lower rank than the previous two people serving in the same role.
It “sends a wrong message both to the Tibetan people and the Chinese government,” Mecacci said.
The special coordinator position has typically been filled by the under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.
Given the Trump administration’s inability to fill that under secretary role, the CTA had urged the executive branch to make “alternative arrangements” for the special coordinator position, said Tsering.
Even if that meant an effective downgrading of the role’s seniority, it was “better to have somebody take charge of the issue”, Tsering said. “I think that is a welcome sign.”
But even with Washington’s appointment of a special coordinator and commitments to support efforts to restart talks, Tsering was sceptical about the prospect of new talks in the immediate future, citing a lack of “strong political will” on the part of Beijing to engage.
“When you clap, it’s not just one hand that claps, the other hand also has to come together,” he said.
Beijing considers the Dalai Lama to be a separatist, despite the fact he has rejected calls for outright Tibetan independence in favour of a “middle way” approach, under which Tibet would remain part of China but be given greater autonomy in how the region is governed.
The Chinese government also opposes any meetings between the Dalai Lama and foreign officials.
While there were no specific plans in place for future talks, Tsering said the prospect of dialogue “is the hope that keeps us going”.
“We are just hoping that wisdom prevails, and the Chinese government and Xi Jinping get that actually this is a win-win solution for both China and Tibet,” he said.
Trump’s former ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, visited Tibet last year and encouraged Chinese officials on the trip to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama, according to the US embassy in Beijing.
In July, the Trump administration announced new visa restrictions on Chinese officials responsible for blocking US diplomats, journalists and tourists from entering Tibet.
Beijing is deeply suspicious of any US engagement with Tibetans inside and out of the Tibet autonomous region, a vast, rugged area in southwest China that is home to more than two million ethnic Tibetans. The “greater Tibet” region, an area that also includes parts of surrounding provinces home to ethnic Tibetans, covers about one-quarter of China’s total land mass.
Americans’ access to the region is often heavily restricted by the Chinese government.
Tibet has also come up as a campaign issue in the upcoming presidential election.
Trump’s opponent, former vice-president Joe Biden, has accused the Trump administration of not doing enough to help Tibetans.
Last month, Biden said that if he wins the election – now about three weeks away – he would meet the Dalai Lama, sanction Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Tibet, and “step up support for the Tibetan people”.
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This article US State Department appoints official to oversee policy on Tibet first appeared on South China Morning Post