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Biden Is Continuing the Trump Administration’s Revised Stance on Tibet

The U.S. government has shifted language away from Beijing’s position.

By , a J.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
The Dalai Lama waves to the crowd.
The Dalai Lama (center) waves to the crowd during the third day of a series of teachings in Bodh Gaya, India, on Jan. 4, 2020. STR/AFP via Getty Images

History is proverbially written by the victors. When it comes to the United States’ position on Tibet, that is often true. Washington was willing to accept Beijing’s language about a conquered country to keep relations smoothed over. Yet the Biden administration has unexpectedly continued firm relationships with Tibetan leaders that were strengthened by the Trump administration, a move that redefines Washington’s consensus on the Tibet-China conflict.

Many speculated U.S. President Joe Biden would be soft on China based on his past record as a senator. But just a few months into the Biden administration’s tenure, the U.S. State Department’s annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” omitted the “[Tibet] as a part of China” portion—a major departure from past reports. The State Department adopted the same measure in its annual “International Religious Freedom” report. And in an unprecedented feat, State Department spokesperson Ned Price congratulated Penpa Tsering, president-elect of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), in a tweet that stated, “We look forward to working with him and the CTA to support the global Tibetan diaspora.”

History is proverbially written by the victors. When it comes to the United States’ position on Tibet, that is often true. Washington was willing to accept Beijing’s language about a conquered country to keep relations smoothed over. Yet the Biden administration has unexpectedly continued firm relationships with Tibetan leaders that were strengthened by the Trump administration, a move that redefines Washington’s consensus on the Tibet-China conflict.

Many speculated U.S. President Joe Biden would be soft on China based on his past record as a senator. But just a few months into the Biden administration’s tenure, the U.S. State Department’s annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” omitted the “[Tibet] as a part of China” portion—a major departure from past reports. The State Department adopted the same measure in its annual “International Religious Freedom” report. And in an unprecedented feat, State Department spokesperson Ned Price congratulated Penpa Tsering, president-elect of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), in a tweet that stated, “We look forward to working with him and the CTA to support the global Tibetan diaspora.”

The most contentious aspect of the Tibet-China conflict relates to sovereignty: Is Tibet a part of China? For decades, the U.S. government had made a Faustian pact with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). By adopting China’s language on Tibet, the U.S. government had better access to the contentious yet powerful country. The State Department’s human rights report had routinely adopted language that affirmed the Tibet Autonomous Region, Tibetan autonomous prefectures, and counties in Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Gansu as parts of China.

History was not the only factor undermined in the name of diplomacy. Perhaps the most gutting picture in U.S.-Tibet relations is the scene of the Dalai Lama exiting the White House after a meeting with then-U.S. President Barack Obama through a backdoor that was partially blocked by trash bags. This was entirely unnecessary; Obama had multiple meetings with the Dalai Lama during his term, and his administration endorsed the CTA’s Middle Way Approach, a compromise that would grant genuine autonomy in Tibet under Chinese rule. By allowing China to set the terms of the two countries’ relationship, the United States fell into a regressive pattern that veered into near self-debasement.

That began to change in the last administration. Although former U.S. President Donald Trump was inconsistent when it came to human rights-oriented U.S.-China policy, his administration robustly confronted unfair Chinese trade machinations, espionage, and academic freedom infringement. This past November, as part of then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reorientation strategy, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff published “The Elements of the China Challenge,” an extensive brief that explicitly noted Tibet as military-occupied land.

Until 2020, Lobsang Sangay, then-president of the Central Tibetan Administration—otherwise known as the Tibetan government in exile—had informal meetings with U.S. State Department officials in restaurants, cafes, and other anonymous locations due to the contentious nature of his status. After the Trump administration’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues was appointed after a delay, Sangay was formally invited to the State Department for the first time. This milestone came at the heels of passing the overwhelmingly bipartisan Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020, which Trump signed into law this past December.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s forecast of bipartisan support on rigorous China policy is coming to fruition. Traditionally, the Republican Party has comfortably held a place as the anti-Chinese government party. But some of the most consistent China hawks have been Democrats. In recent years, members of the Democratic left have also castigated China’s blatant human rights abuses.

In a poorly judged moment, the Democratic National Committee’s 2020 platform conspicuously removed language on Tibet. The backlash led to Biden publicly voicing his support for strong U.S.-Tibet policy during his campaign. Since then, the Biden administration has made a strong effort in proving its support for Tibet; this past February, Blinken became the first U.S. secretary of state to join the State Department-sponsored Losar (or Tibetan New Year) celebration.

In a joint letter issued by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, the two praised Blinken for the State Department’s change in language on Tibet; the press release explicitly noted the Chinese Communist Party’s intentional distortion of history and proclaimed, “Experience has taught us that the ‘correct’ understandings of history that the CCP insists others must accept are incomplete or incorrect in important ways.”

Although the Tibet victories are only symbolic so far, this policy shift is a blow for the CCP, a government that feverishly aims to manipulate history and public relations. Other victims of Chinese aggression have benefited as well. The Biden administration invited Taiwan’s envoy to the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim, to the presidential inauguration for the first time since 1979. After the inauguration, the State Department sanctioned a Chinese government official for his involvement in the human rights violations of Falun Gong practitioners as well as 24 Chinese individuals involved in Hong Kong’s regression into autocracy.

The recent language correction is a feat that goes unnoticed to even the sharpest China watchers, but it is a large feat for Tibetans. By accepting Tibet’s true history, the U.S. government implicitly accepted its former position was mistaken. For too long, the West accepted China’s claims at face value. This change, long overdue, sets the record straight.

Kelsang Dolma is a J.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She previously worked at the Office of Tibet-DC and graduated with a B.A. from Yale. Twitter: @Kelsang_Dolma_

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