U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday announced the concurrent designation of Assistant Secretary Robert A. Destro of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to serve as the United States Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. The appointment of Mr. Destro gains significance in light of the upcoming November U.S. Presidential elections, with the country’s foreign policy with regards to rising tensions with China on multiple issues being a key talking point for the American electoral constituencies. “We are grateful for the appointment but let’s not forget that the position has been kept vacant for almost 4 years”, said Richen Namgyal, an activist based in New York.
The position of Special Coordinator has been vacant since January 20, 2017, when Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, concurrently served as the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. Lawmakers as well as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had urged the Trump administration to fill the position, which did not materialize for the past four years until now – a position that has been established by and mandated by the U.S.’s Tibetan Policy Act (2002). President Trump broke away from a precedent that was maintained by his predecessors since President Bill Clinton by not meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. While the sudden appointment of Mr. Destro is a positive turn of event, it does fall short of symbolizing a concrete show of reassurance from the current administration since the appointee will in all probability change if the Democrats win the White House.
The first Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues within the State Department in November 1997 was created under the authority of the Secretary of State. The position was codified by Congress in the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 with Gregory Craig as the first Special Coordinator for Tibet. The Tibetan Policy Act and the appointment of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues were hailed as a milestone in the history of U.S.-Tibet relations. For the first time, a U.S. government official was appointed solely for the responsibility of coordinating Tibet policy and for the first time the Congress directed State Department policy on Tibet through the mission of the Special Coordinator.
The U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibet was legally assigned to promote substantive dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama or his representatives. The coordinator was responsible for addressing human rights issue inside Tibet, but in addition they would also address the humanitarian needs of Tibetan refugees. Such responsibilities fell in tune with U.S. efforts to protect the unique religious, cultural, and linguistic identity of Tibetans. “Special Coordinator Destro will engage Tibetan leaders and international partners and experts to address these issues”, as noted in the statement from Mike Pompeo. He further mentioned that the United States will continue to support Tibet’s global diaspora and their advocacy for the freedom of religion and belief through the good office of the Special Coordinator.
The United States involvement in the Tibet question has been largely based on human rights and humanitarian issue. However, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s forceful advocacy has helped add a new dimension in introducing Tibet as an issue of geopolitical significance. This has been reflected in the U.S. State Department’s new visa restrictions against Chinese officials, and by describing the Tibetan region as increasingly vital to regional stability and so elevating the issue from the realm of human rights to geostrategic importance. Similarly, when the position for the Special Coordinator was first created, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), made an effort to ensure that this position was not incorporated under the Asia-Pacific Bureau or the Human Rights Bureau in the Department of State. Such an endeavor led to a greater role of Tibet issue in the U.S. foreign policy directions, which would have far-reaching implications. With such special responsibility delegated to this position, the appointees in the past have had an extensive background on issues such as refugee rights and migration, etc.
China has firmly opposed the United States’ Appointment of a special coordinator for Tibetan issues, deeming it as interference in China’s internal affairs and a move to destabilize Tibet. However, the deterioration of the relations between the two powers in recent months has brought back the fundamental differences between the two, leading to verbal salvoes at Beijing’s governance, state-led economic system, espionage activities and handling of the pandemic. The ramifications of this appointment as well as the impact the Mr. Destro may have is up for debate yet it cannot be denied that Tibet can no longer be shelved along the lines of human rights and environment, but instead has increasingly juxtaposed itself within the geostrategic interests of China and U.S foreign policies.
*Tenzin Lhadon is a fellow of Tibet Policy Institute and a Ph.D scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute.