US appoints new Tibet coordinator amid tensions with China

Biden administration says Uzra Zeya will promote human rights and ‘fundamental freedoms’ of the Tibetan people.

Uzra Zeya will retain her current position as undersecretary for democracy and human rights while serving as special coordinator for Tibet [File: Alex Wong/ Getty Images North America/AFP]

The Biden administration has announced a new special coordinator for Tibetan issues, saying the office will “promote substantive dialogue” between China and the Dalai Lama and push to protect the human rights and “fundamental freedoms” of the Tibetan people.

The State Department announced on Monday that veteran diplomat Uzra Zeya would serve as the new coordinator while remaining in her position as undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

Zeya’s appointment comes amid growing tensions between Washington and Beijing over numerous issues and is likely to spark objection from China, which has previously accused the US of attempting to “destabilise” Tibet.

“She [Zeya] will promote respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Tibetans, including their freedom of religion or belief, and will support efforts to preserve their distinct historical, linguistic, cultural and religious heritage,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

He added that the new coordinator would also support efforts to address the humanitarian needs of displaced Tibetans, including refugees in the United States.

The coordinator’s office, which works within the State Department, was established by the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002. It remained vacant for three years during the Trump administration, until then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Robert Destro to the post last year, prompting criticism from China.

At the time, Beijing called Destro’s appointment an interference in its internal affairs that aimed to “destabilise Tibet”. Destro left the State Department when the Biden administration came to office in January.

The Chinese embassy in Washington denounced the US announcement on Monday as “political manipulation”.

“The U.S. should stop interfering in China’s internal affairs or destabilizing Tibet under the pretext of Tibet-related issues. China will take all necessary measures to safeguard our interests,” embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu told the Reuters news agency in an email, without elaborating.

China captured Tibet in 1950 as part of what it describes as the “peaceful liberation” of the region. Critics say the Chinese government forces Chinese education on the people of the remote province in what the Dalai Lama has called a “cultural genocide“.

The Dalai Lama has been living in exile since fleeing during a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. With the exception of Donald Trump, all former American presidents since George W H Bush have met with the Tibetan spiritual leader while in office.

China’s President Xi Jinping made a rare visit to Tibet in July, urging local officials to identify more with the “great motherland” and the Communist Party.

International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), an advocacy group for Tibetan human rights and based in the US and Europe, welcomed Zeya’s appointment on Monday.

“We anticipate that as someone familiar with the Tibetan issue, Zeya will work proactively at promoting dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and the Chinese leadership, as well as at advocating for US interests in Tibet, and advancing the cause of Tibetan Americans and Tibetans around the globe,” ICT’s interim President Bhuchung K Tsering said in a statement.

But the move comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China over a series of issues, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur and other largely Muslim minorities in the country’s western Xinjiang region.

Washington and several of its allies announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing earlier this month, citing “egregious” Chinese human rights abuses.

Blinken said on Monday that Zeya’s appointment highlights the US administration’s “commitment to advance the human rights of Tibetans, help preserve their distinct heritage, address their humanitarian needs, and meet environmental and water resource challenges of the Tibetan plateau”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies