I am asked this question with increasing frequency. The position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues has been vacant for more than 10 months. The quick answer: coming soon (we hope). But here’s a longer response to give an indication of where things stand.
For the last 16 years, there has been a designated person within the U.S. government responsible for coordinating U.S. policy on Tibet. This position is required by law (under the Tibetan Policy Act).
The Tibet Coordinator was first created in the Clinton Administration following bipartisan pressure from Congress for an envoy on Tibet. The initial individuals serving in this role were Greg Craig (1997-98) and Julia Taft (1999-2001).
In the Bush Administration, Paula Dobriansky (2001-2009) served as Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, concurrent with her underlying responsibilities as Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs. It was thought at the time that putting the Tibet job at this senior position would allow for greater coordination of U.S. policy, and facilitate engagement with Chinese officials on the issue.
The Tibet Coordinator position remained in the Under Secretary’s office in Obama’s first term, under Maria Otero (2009-2013). Otero left the State Department along with Secretary Hillary Clinton in January 2013. The Tibet Coordinator position has remained vacant since. This is not due to policy or political concerns around the issue within the Department. Rather, it has to do with bureaucracy and the slowness of the process to fill key positions.
First, it took the Obama White House six months to name a nominee for the position of Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights (as it is now known). Sarah Sewall, a Harvard professor who served in the Clinton Administration as a Capitol Hill staffer, was nominated on August 1.
Second, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn’t hold a hearing on her confirmation until November 7 (to be fair, the White House may not have sent the paperwork over in a timely manner). She was approved by the Committee later that month.
Now, she must be approved by the full Senate. But many State Department nominations are being held up due to disagreements over the Benghazi incident and Republican anger over the Democrats’ changing the rules on nominations. The Senate is scheduled to be in session for only two weeks in December, so we hope that the typical end-of-the-year flurry of activity in Congress includes Ms. Sewall’s nomination. If not, we will have to wait until January 2014 at least.
Of course, there is nothing that formally ties the Tibet Coordinator to this Under Secretary seat. Technically, the Tibetan Policy Act does not specify that the role even be within the State Department, or even dual-hatted with an existing position. But tradition and precedence counts for a lot in this environment, and we have every reason to expect that the Department will continue to see the Under Secretary post as the optimal place for the Tibet Coordinator. Further, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, in her hearing, expressed the assumption that Sarah Sewall would be designated Tibet Coordinator, continuing the Congressional interest in the position.
So lastly, once Sarah Sewall is confirmed as Under Secretary, then we hope and expect that very little time will elapse before she is formally given the Tibet portfolio.
The lack of a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues has not meant that there is no one minding the Tibet shop within the Department. During 2013, the U.S. government has given Tibet a prominent role in U.S. dialogues with the Chinese, at the UN Human Rights Council and, we hope, on the agenda of Vice President Biden, who is in Beijing as I write.
The Under Secretary’s office continues to have staff designated for Tibet to carry out the requisite duties. And there are staff members in the relevant bureaus – for East Asia, South Asia, human rights, refugees, etc. – who continue to monitor Tibet and implement policy. At this moment, though, the “Tibet office” is short staffed following the recent departure of a senior staffer. This is one more reason to have Ms. Sewall confirmed, sworn in, and appointed, so that she can expeditiously staff up the office.