By Kelsang Dolma Foreign Policy
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.
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