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.
In time for their conventions, the two main U.S. political parties unveiled their 2012 platforms, which lay out their policy positions. Each platform mentions Tibet, and even strengthens the language from 2008. This reflects the parties’ acknowledgement of the American public’s concern for Tibet. Following are the references to Tibet, highlighted and provided in the context of the sections dealing with policy toward China:
We will welcome the emergence of a peaceful and prosperous China, and we will welcome even more the development of a democratic China. Its rulers have discovered that economic freedom leads to national wealth. The next lesson is that political and religious freedom leads to national greatness. The exposure of the Chinese people to our way of life can be the greatest force for change in their country. We should make it easier for the people of China to experience our vibrant democracy and to see for themselves how freedom works. We welcome the increase in trade and education alliances with the U.S. and the opening of Chinese markets to American companies.
The Chinese government has engaged in a number of activities that we condemn: China’s pursuit of advanced military capabilities without any apparent need; suppression of human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang, and other areas; religious persecution; a barbaric one-child policy involving forced abortion; the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong; and its destabilizing claims in the South China Sea. Our serious trade disputes, especially China’s failure to enforce international standards for the protection of intellectual property and copyrights, as well as its manipulation of its currency, call for a firm response from a new Republican Administration.
Meanwhile, the President is committed to continuing efforts to build a cooperative relationship with China, while being clear and candid when we have differences. The world has a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China, but China must also understand that it must abide by clear international standards and rules of the road. China can be a partner in reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, countering proliferation in Iran, confronting climate change, increasing trade, and resolving other global challenges. President Obama will continue to seek additional opportunities for cooperation with China, including greater communication between our militaries. We will do this even as we continue to be clear about the importance of the Chinese government upholding international economic rules regarding currency, export financing, intellectual property, indigenous innovation, and workers’ rights. We will consistently speak out for the importance of respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people, including the right of the Tibetan people to preserve their cultural and religious identity. And we remain committed to a one China policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues that is consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.
The messages on Tibet are subtly but importantly more robust than before. The Republican platform this time employs an active and forceful word – “condemn” – to speak to the suppression of basic rights in Tibet. The Democrats have expanded their language to refer to preservation of Tibetans’ cultural and religious identity.
Further, this is the first time that both parties have repeated a reference to Tibet in their platforms from the previous convention. The Democrats mentioned Tibet in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2008, but not 2004. The Republicans mentioned Tibet in 1996 and 2008, but not in 1992, 2000 or 2004.
Language in a party platform is just that; it is not a government policy position paper. However, the Tibet references are a reflection of the successful institutionalization of the Tibet issue into the policy apparatus of the U.S. government, from the State Department’s Tibet Coordinator to the several programs funded by Congress annually. While we don’t have a read-out yet, we expect that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engaged on Tibet with her Chinese counterparts on her just-completed visit to Beijing.
The platform is, of course, a political document, and the Tibet inclusion does come within a political calculus. By nature, both parties look at the sentiments of the American public to formulate their agendas. The inclusion of Tibet means that the public interest for Tibet continues to be strong. Supporting Tibet has come to symbolize a politician’s commitment to fundamental human rights, religious freedom and human dignity. This dynamic was on display in 2009, when President Obama did not meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington, and the White House was accused of sidelining human rights in relations with China.
And no one hypes the political aspect more than the Chinese media. Every time the Dalai Lama comes to Washington, its commentators are quick to characterize his meetings with the President and Congress as nothing more than appeasement to some domestic political constituency. Clearly, their motivation is to dismiss any notion of a policy reason for anyone to meet with the man they call a “splittist” or worse.
When President Obama was faced with conflicting advice over whether to host the Dalai Lama in early 2010 (following the aforementioned non-meeting in October 2009), he is reported to have said that, “Let me cut this argument short, I’m going to meet with him.” Jeff Bader, Senior Director for Asia at the White House, writes in his book that, “[t]he President believed that meeting with the Dalai Lama was the right thing to do for substantive reasons, and this judgment was reinforced by his assessment of the domestic political damage that would result from further delay [of a meeting].
And there you have it – substance and politics.
But politics doesn’t exist in itself – it’s a term applied to the way we “choose our government officials and make decisions about public policy.” The U.S. government advocates for Tibetans as an expression of a principled foreign policy derived from a commitment to fundamental human rights and the rule of law, including obligations arising from domestic and international law. In Beijing, Secretary Clinton is asking the Chinese to end repression in Tibet not because it’s in the Democratic platform, because it is the right and just thing to do.
We would like to hear more from the candidates about what they would do for Tibet. As it has done in each of the recent election cycles, ICT has asked the presidential candidates to respond to our 2012 Tibet questionnaire. For our members and the public, we would like to know more about their stand on Tibet. We sent questionnaires to the four candidates who have qualified on enough ballots to reach 270 electoral votes – Libertarian Gary Johnson, Democrat Barack Obama, Republican Mitt Romney, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Thus far only one has responded (Obama). Please take moment to ask the candidates to respond to the Tibet questionnaire through e-mail and social media, by visiting our webpage.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has already made a cameo appearance in the 2012 U.S. presidential race.
On the day that Jon Huntsman (governor of Utah 2005-2009, Ambassador to China 2009-2011) launched his campaign, there was some Internet buzz over a photo he posted on his Facebook site of him meeting with the Dalai Lama. It turns out the photo was from May 2001 during His Holiness’ visit to Utah, at an event hosted by then-Governor Mike Leavitt.
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The main media take-away from the just concluded Strategic and Economic Dialogue appears to be that the U.S. pushed China on human rights, in the context of the recent crackdown on writers, journalists and lawyers.
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