China And Tibet Respond To U.S. Appointment Of Tibet Special Coordinator

After years of remaining vacant, the position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues has been filled by Assistant Secretary Robert A. Destro. Assistant Secretary Destro currently serves in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Concerns have been voiced by the International Campaign for Tibet that the appointment has been demoted to a lower level. Usually, since the introduction of the Tibetan Policy Act in 2002, the Special Coordinator position has been held by an Under Secretary. The demotion to an Assistant Secretary position raises concerns on whether the U.S. will be able to “implement longstanding U.S. Tibet policy,” according to a report from the campaign. Further, they worry the demotion sends a message to both China and Tibetans worldwide that the U.S. has “downgraded the priority it gives to Tibet.”

The Special Coordinator has historically taken part in dialogues between China and the Dalai Lama in exile. Having a U.S. Special Coordinator sent a message of not just support, but solidarity with Tibetans to encourage the nonviolent movement. Dialogues between the Dalai Lama and China have been stalled since 2010, and the appointment of the Special Coordinator to a lower level does not encourage China to engage in further dialogues. The campaign asserts that “the Administration should not create a precedent to appoint the Special Coordinator at this lower level in the future.”

The Central Tibetan Administration, in a report on their website, voiced concerns that the position took so long to fill “despite repeated appeals” from both themselves and U.S. congress members. Traditionally the position goes to the Under Secretary of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, but that position has remained vacant. The North American Representative of the Dalai Lama, Ngodup Tsering, was reported stating that he believes the appointment was reactionary to recent human rights violations being brought to the news. He is optimistic, stating, “This appointment is, therefore, a welcome sign of meaningful support for Tibet by the U.S. Government. And we will gladly take this opportunity to discuss the Middle Way Approach with the Chinese government.”

Speaker Pema Jungney of the 16th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile expressed “earnest gratitude to the US government” and congratulated Assistant Secretary Destro. Alternatively to other Tibetan sources, he believes the appointment sends a strong message to China that the issue still exists and that the U.S. supports further dialogue. He acknowledged Assitant Secretary Destro’s past career has demonstrated he has “exceptional experience,” and called Assistant Secretary Destro “a human rights advocate.”

Speaker Pema Jungney also expressed on behalf of both the Parliament-in-Exile and the Dalai Lama that the Tibetan people are seeking “genuine autonomy” that would serve the interest of China as well as Tibet through the “Middle Way Approach.” The Dalai Lama defines the Middle Way Approach on his website as follows:

“A non-partisan and moderate position that safeguards the vital interests of all concerned parties-for Tibetans: the protection and preservation of their culture, religion and national identity; for the Chinese: the security and territorial integrity of the motherland; and for neighbours and other third parties: peaceful borders and international relations.”

China has taken a firm stance against the Special Coordinator appointment not seeing it at all as hope for continuation in dialogue. Instead, the Chinese government believes the appointment serves to “destabilize” Tibet. Further, China has always held that “Tibet’s affairs are China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference,” according to Zhao Lijian, a spokesman at the Chinese foreign ministry as reported by Al Jazeera. Zhao Lijian goes on to mark the recent appointment as “political manipulation” as part of current moves by the U.S. to interfere in China’s efforts to solidify its supposed territory. The U.S. has recently been supporting Taiwanese efforts to arm against China through an arms deal with Taiwan to provide them with a number of weapons. Relations between China and the U.S. have been deteriorating as China continues to further expand its territory into disputed zones with India and the Philippines, as well as its attempts to control Taiwan and Tibet as part of their sovereign domain.

Whether Assistant Secretary Robert A. Destro will serve to encourage peace talks between Tibet and China, or if he will lack the standing to do so is still unclear. Assistant Secretary Destro has a history of working with the Peace Research Institute Oslo to foster dialogues in the Middle East to promote the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Though his expertise has been recognized as mainly in elections, employment laws, and religious studies. Whether these experiences and expertise will result in meaningful change for Tibet is yet to be known.