What does the election mean for Tibet?

On Tuesday, November 13, 2012, in China, US Government, by Todd Stein

Tibet did not figure in the 2012 election, and China was brought up mostly as a tool to pummel the other guy on economic policy. As official Washington turns attention back to governing, we will see new personnel in key positions in the U.S. government, focus on the leadership transition in China, and increased media attention on the crisis in Tibet. The coming months present a critical opportunity to make a qualitative advance in efforts to promote improvements in conditions in Tibet.

First, there is no political impetus from the election to alter U.S. Tibet policy. The White House, Senate and House of Representatives remain under the same partisan control.  The Obama Administration will be expected to continue its policy (which mirrors that of its predecessors) of promoting Tibetan-Chinese dialogue and calling for an end to repressive Chinese policies that are creating the resentments behind the self-immolations. The Administration’s general statements on Tibet can be found here, and their specific statements on the self-immolations can be found here.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she will leave at the end of this term. The three names mentioned to replace her are Sen. John Kerry, Susan Rice, Ambassador to the United Nations, and Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor.

Kerry has a long record of support for Tibet, and helped shepherd through two Tibet resolutions in the Senate this year. In his four years as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, his focus has been on areas other than China and East Asia policy. Rice has not had an opportunity to deal with Tibet in the U.N. (since China blocks discussion there), although in this seat she certainly has experienced Chinese intransigence. A Secretary Donilon, who reportedly runs the Administration’s China policy now, would essentially mean that China policy implementation would merely shift from the National Security Council to Foggy Bottom.

One of the most important factors for Tibet is the choice of the next Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. It is expected that the incumbent, Under Secretary Maria Otero, will leave after the term ends. The choice will be up to the next Secretary of State, who can decide to continue the Coordinator position at the Under Secretary level, move it to a different position, or convert it into a sort of ‘special envoy’ type role. The key is to ensure that its placement maximizes the Coordinator’s ability to coordinate policy within the bureaucracy, and to promote dialogue and an improvement in the human rights situation in Tibet.

In Congress, three of four of the top foreign policy committee jobs will be open. The current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), is term limited. Two Republicans are vying to replace her. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who has been a forceful advocate for human rights in China and Tibet, and even adopted the Panchen Lama as a political prisoner. The other is Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), former chair of the Asia subcommittee. While Smith has more seniority, Royce has the endorsement of Ros-Lehtinen and may have broader support among his colleagues. The outgoing chairman has given strong support to Tibet, both in holding hearings on the subject and in crafting legislation. Her successor, whether Smith or Royce, will mean continued support for Tibet and may mean more attention on policy toward China.

The top Democrat on the committee will be either Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) or Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), after the current ranking member Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) was defeated in the election by Sherman. Berman was an author of some of the earliest Tibet legislation, back in the 1990s. While neither Engel nor Berman has much of a Tibet profile, they are expected to continue Congressional support.

In the Senate, the first question is whether John Kerry remains as Chairman. If he goes to State, the gavel is expected to pass to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). He is known for a tough line on Cuba and Iran, and has been sympathetic to the plight of Tibetans, speaking up for continued surrogate broadcasting into Tibet. The ranking Republican on the committee is expected to be Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who has not established a profile on China/Asia policy.

It is important to note that none of these lawmakers is considered hostile to the Tibet issue. In fact, there is not, nor has there ever been, an “anti-Tibet” faction in Congress. And the issue is completely bipartisan. Rep. Nancy Pelosi has been perhaps Tibet’s biggest champion in the House. But when Rep. John Boehner became Speaker, he hosted the Dalai Lama and met with Sikyong Lobsang Sangay. This continuity is a reflection of the institutionalization of the Tibet issue in Congress, and reflects the broad support the issue receives.

While continuity in policy and support is vital building block, citizens and advocates must continue to call on our representatives in government to push more for a resolution to the Tibet problem. Because of the changes in Beijing and the escalation of self-immolation and protest in Tibet, now is a critical time to pursue these efforts. While we will have to see how these leadership positions get filled, we are fortunate that such changes would only have a tactical effect on our advocacy, not a strategic one. This is because of the institutionalization of the Tibet issue in the U.S. government has created a strong foundation of support for the issue.

Onward.

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