Beyond tokenism, the concurrent appointment of Robert Destro to the position does not signify much.
Should the 2019 bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, be reintroduced in a similar form in the future, the special coordinator will seek to facilitate “unconditional” dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama “or his representatives or democratically-elected leaders of the Tibetan community.” Such language aims to checkmate China’s own candidate as the Dalai Lama’s eventual successor as Beijing desperately seeks to shape the end game there as a means to legitimize its control over Tibet. As former senior Indian intelligence officer and advisor on Tibetan affairs Amitabh Mathur told NPR last year, “the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is a civilizational struggle between China and Tibetans over who controls Tibetan Buddhism.”
“The United States remains concerned with the PRC’s repression of the Tibetan community, including the lack of meaningful autonomy, the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas, and severe restrictions on Tibetans’ religious freedom and cultural traditions within China,” Pompeo’s statement noted.
But it is important to note that the appointment of a new special coordinator in itself does not amount to much, beyond adding to the Trump administration’s increasingly loud, angry, and often unwise rhetoric when it comes to China. The timing of the new appointment is also curious, just weeks before the U.S. presidential elections, especially after the Trump waited almost four years to fill the special coordinator position. (If Trump loses the November 3 election, it is entirely possible the incoming Biden administration could replace Destro, a political appointee, with someone else.)
Meanwhile, China has reacted harshly to the appointment of the new special coordinator. Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian noted in a press briefing earlier today that “the setting up of the so-called special coordinator for Tibetan issues is entirely out of political manipulation to interfere in China’s internal affairs and destabilize Xizang [China’s nomenclature for Tibet].” He also asked Pompeo to “stop fabricating all sorts of lies about China.”