A virtual U.S. presence in Lhasa

On Tuesday, January 3, 2012, in US Government, by Todd Stein

Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, if the U.S. announces a diplomatic presence in Tibet and no one can see it, does it exist?

A few weeks ago, a flurry of interest among Tibetans and Tibet supporters focused on the webpage, lhasa.usvpp.gov. It is a website for the U.S. State Department’s “Virtual Presence Post in Lhasa, China.” An exciting discovery?  Maybe.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Congress has called for, and ICT has lobbied for, an American diplomatic presence in Lhasa. Isn’t this virtual post a good thing? I think so.

I apologize that ambivalence had gotten the best of me. I’m stuck on the word virtual, which the dictionary defines as “being such in power, force, or effect, though not actually or expressly such.” We can thus look at a virtual American presence in Lhasa as simultaneously there and not there, much as physicists describe quantum particles.

On one hand, it’s there. Look at the list of official U.S. embassies and posts overseas. There’s Lhasa! According to the State Department, Virtual Presence Posts (VPPs) allow American diplomats to “broaden engagement with key cities, communities, regions, and countries that do not have an American embassy or consulate building.” Functionally, VPPs constitute two things: (1) a website for a particular VPP which provides information and links relevant to the area and country, and (2) a mechanism for U.S. diplomats from nearby embassies or consulates (in this case, Chengdu) to service U.S. citizens and commercial interests, perform public outreach, and engage with local officials, organizations and citizens.

By establishing and listing this post, the State Department demonstrates that the U.S. has an interest in Tibet.  And it provides a mechanism for U.S. diplomats to be able to spend time in Lhasa and to monitor developments of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

On the other hand, it’s not there. Being virtual, there is no office. A VPP involves a U.S. Foreign Service Officer working for a few days in a city, likely out of his or her hotel room, a few times a year. The website gives no indication as to what any U.S. official has done in Lhasa, or even whether any have been allowed in to do this work (the State Department has stated that three-quarters of their requests to travel to Tibet are denied).  There is a picture of former Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s trip to Lhasa, but that was in September 2010, a few months afeter the VPP Lhasa was established in April 2010.

Since a key aspect of a VPP’s purpose it is web presence, one wonders how useful it is if so few visit it for current information?

Most critically, it’s not what it should be. Congress has been insistent for years that the U.S. put a full-fledged consulate in Lhasa. Following the Tibetan Policy Act, which urged establishment of “an office in Lhasa, Tibet, to monitor political, economic, and cultural developments in Tibet,” Congress has advanced legislation in 2008, 2009 and 2011 directing that this post in Lhasa be a full consulate.

Since 2008, the State Department has told Congress that Lhasa remains one of two priorities for consulates in the PRC (the other is Xiamen). This was reiterated as recently as June 2011. The Chinese want consulates in Boston and Atlanta, and under reciprocity, they would have to grant the U.S. two consulates in their country. Keeping Lhasa on top of the consulates list is an important point of leverage for the U.S.

I think the VPP Lhasa is positive, as it shows a U.S. interest in Tibet, including for travel by American tourists, journalists and diplomats which is so often refused. It is a foothold, even if just virtual at this point. But it should not be seen as a compromise position with Beijing, regardless of how intransigent they appear to be on making a deal under reciprocity.

We should continue to urge the State Department to maintain its position to upgrade this post to a consulate, specifically because implementation requires consent by the Chinese government. The US is always looking for leverage with the PRC. If they get Boston or Atlanta, we get Lhasa. The Lhasa consulate is not just a tug of war with China over US Tibet policy, it is a statement of national interest. The closest US consulate to Lhasa is in Chengdu, some 800 miles away, limiting the ability of U.S. officials to respond to American visitors seeking assistance and to keep a pulse on human rights, strategic, social and economic developments in Tibet. A consulate in Lhasa is consistent with both U.S. policy and U.S. interests in the region.

Tagged with: