WASHINGTON - The US Congress has voted to demand access for US diplomats, journalists and tourists to Tibet, threatening to bar the Chinese officials responsible for the policy from the United States if the region remained walled off to foreigners.
The bill, which passed with bipartisan support, comes after years of concern over human rights violations in the predominantly Buddhist region, where foreigners are generally required to obtain a special permit to visit.
Congress voted to require the State Department to verify each year whether China has granted access to Tibet and ethnically Tibetan areas in line with how it treats the rest of the country.
If restrictions remain in place on Americans seeking to enter Tibet, the State Department would then be compelled to ban Chinese officials responsible for the policy from entering the United States.
Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the bill was "about fundamental fairness." "Chinese citizens enjoy broad access to the United States, and I think that is terrific," he said.
"But it is unacceptable that the same is not true for US students, journalists or diplomats going to Tibet, including our Tibetan-American constituents just trying to visit their country of origin." The bill passed without objections by a voice vote this week after similar passage in the House of Representatives.
The legislation needs the signature of President Donald Trump, which appears likely as it has wide support within his Republican Party.
The bill comes amid frictions between the United States and China over trade and the arrest in Canada on a US request of an executive with Chinese tech giant Huawei on charges of violating US sanctions on Iran.
A recent op-ed piece in China's state-run Global Times denounced the Tibet bill and accused the United States of "double standards or even multiple standards on human rights," pointing to how Washington pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council over the body's criticism of Israel.
Matteo Mecacci - the president of the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group close to the exiled Dalai Lama that has pressed for the legislation - said the measure was different from trade tensions as it will become part of US law.
"Certainly this is a major step forward because now it is clearly on the agenda of the Chinese government," said Mecacci, a former Italian MP.
"Our goal is not to stop Chinese officials from coming here. It is to open up Tibet to the world," he told AFP.
"If they choose to scrap this system of additional permits, that would be, as they would say, a win-win."