America’s Diplomatic Boycott Policy for Beijing Olympics
Prof Rajaram Panda

No bigger international sport event than the Olympics escaped from the impact of the on-going pandemic when the global event scheduled to be held in Tokyo in 2020 was postponed for a year and finally held in 2021 amid plenty of protocols in place and the lustre was missing to a large extent. Now when Beijing gets ready to host the next Winter Olympics due to start on 4 February till 13th many leading countries have announced to boycott as many of China’s policies have come under flak. Japan had already made huge investment in hosting the event and it would have been an economic disaster had the event not taken place. Arguments swing between extreme support and extreme opposition in organising the event of such a scale as the deadly pandemic was hounding the world. Japan was able to convince the world and succeeded in using its international clout despite Tokyo Olympic organising committee President Yoshiro Mori’s getting involved in an unpleasant situation over making sexist remarks and forcing him to resign, that it was best prepared to tackle the burgeoning crisis and organise the event without compromising safety of sportspersons and accompanying supporting personnel. As it transpired, the event was a moderate success.

Beijing’s case is entirely different and for other reasons. Many democratic countries such as the US, the UK, Canada and Japan were the first to announce the boycott.[1] More and more countries followed suit with announcements of non-participation by their diplomats and officials.

Why is the democratic world up in arms against Beijing? The problems stem from allegations of human rights violations piling up on China. After US President Joe Biden announced the diplomatic boycott, Britain and Canada soon followed with their boycotts of the event. Canada said that it was deeply disturbed by the troubling reports of human rights violations in China. In fact, Japan was the first country in the world to report blatant human rights violations by China in its Xinjiang region against Uyghur Muslims. Japan is also miffed by Beijing’s repeated incursions into the Japanese maritime boundaries around Senkaku islands.

This privilege of embarrassing China on the world stage was not exclusive to these four countries as soon other countries announced boycotts. Australia whose ties with China have faced serious strain over trade issues and accusation of the virus’ origin in Wuhan too joined the boycott bandwagon. India is also in the same boycott league. Besides violations of human rights allegations, India is angry over China’s aggression on its borders for almost two years now. In the process, Beijing Olympics has become the biggest embarrassment for China.

Despite the fact that China has accumulated astounding economic capital and military strength, its face before the world has become unpleasant. Chinese President Xi Jinping shall continue to struggle shoring up China’s declining cachet in the geographical space. The boycott of the mega-event only adds to his troubles. Xi did recognise that China’s soft power image had received a hit despite that he reoriented China’s diplomacy with what was labelled as wolf warrior diplomacy. For Xi Jinping, the Winter Olympics is an opportunity to humanise the Chinese Communist Party.

Not to be deterred by the world boycott, China’s response was no less intimidating. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin lost no time in saying that the event is not a stage for political posturing. [2] Such language is reminiscent of what China remarked while hosting the Olympics in summer 2008 as it wanted to be recognised as one of the most important players of the world. However, this time around, China does not feel the need to be recognised as a great power as it feels it is already one.

Though almost 90 countries were to send delegations to participate in the event and only some democratic countries (but important ones) have decided to boycott, the significance of this cannot be underestimated. However, it is to be assessed if the impact of the current boycott shall be different from the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics when the US athletes stayed out of the games.

Broadly, it transpires that most nations that decided to boycott identified their positions with the US position on democratic governance and human rights. From his side, President Joe Biden was seen sending a message to the international community that his administration priorities human rights and also is preparing to toughen stance on trade issues initially started by his predecessor Donald Trump. In fact, during the Trump administration, US-China relations hit a low point, with a massive trade war and incendiary debate over how the Covid-19 virus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Even Australia’s relations have suffered over this issue and Australia demanded investigation by a global agency on the virus’ origin. The Biden administration has been focussing on strengthening traditional US alliances to counter China’s growing economic clout and military presence across the Indo-Pacific region. This is in some way repairing the wrongs done by Trump as his policies had raised doubts among the allies if they can continue to rely on US support in times of crisis. For Biden now, the Olympic boycott is part of a complex diplomatic balancing act.

Not able to digest the insult, China reacted harshly saying that the US will “pay the price” for its decision, citing human rights concerns. Biden has raised China’s dealing with the Uyghur minority, terming it as “genocide”. Human rights advocates allege that at least one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking people; mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang. China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour. Beijing has defended the camps as vocational training centres aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamic extremism.

The International Olympic Committee called it a “purely political decision for each government, which the IOC in its political neutrality fully respects”. [3] In the meantime, Beijing has threatened unspecified countermeasures and said the “Winter Olympics are not a stage for political shows and political manipulation”.

As expected, rights groups in the US welcomed Biden’s decision. No US diplomatic or official representation to the Games shall be sent. While Biden is prioritizing China’s naval patrols intruding into sensitive international sea lanes in its objective to bring those under its control over trade issues as major concerns while keeping option for dialogue open, the Olympic Games is emerging as a new flashpoint. The last full boycott of the Olympics by the US was in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter withdrew in protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. [4]

Though Olympic organizers in the past have long attempted to insulate the Games from politics, touting neutrality as a key tenet of the events, global events have in the past sparked debate and even led to large boycotts as recently as 1980 and 1984. Japan decided at the last minute to join 64 other countries, including the US, West Germany, Canada, Norway and China, in boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union and its allies responded with their own boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. This time, the scenario is different as geostrategic issues have changed and China’s military muscles have substantially increased.

The boycott list is just increasing. At a time when Xi is seeking to stay in power for an unprecedented third term, at least 19 major countries have decided not to sign a truce with China. India, the US, the UK, Japan, Canada and even Turkey are among several other nations who have refused to sign the ‘Olympic Truce’ with China. This is an ancient tradition meant to lead to a cessation of hostilities among warring sides to ensure smooth conduct of the Games.[5] It would be difficult for Xi to face this kind of punishment and may behave more ruthlessly.

Like the US, UK and Canada, Japan too decided not to send any government representative to the Games.[5] Government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno observed: “Japan believes it is important that common values shared by the international community such as freedom, human rights, and the rule of law are also respected in China”. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida decided not to make an official announcement to avoid damaging relations with China, though he has no plan to attend the Games in February. The Chinese ambassador in Tokyo urged Japan not to join diplomatic boycott of the Games. [6]

Interestingly, US ally South Korea ruled out joining the boycott, citing the need to work with China. It appears that both Japan and South Korea being Asian neighbours of China, both weigh national interests before arriving at a decision. Given the heavy economic interdependence the three countries share, Japan and South Korea are performing balancing acts despite both have bilateral issues with China. None of the three seem prepared to jeopardise their long-term interests despite simmering tensions. While the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and senior French officials are set to attend the Games, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is staying politically neutral on the matter. French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin have criticised those countries which have announced the boycott. [7] New Zealand decided months ago that its diplomats would not be attending. Since France will host the next Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024, she shall attend the Games because of protocol. Italy too would not join the American boycott. Italy will host the Winter Games in 2026 and would be expected by Olympic tradition to send official emissaries to these Games, accepting the baton, as it were, from one host to another.

Interestingly, adding some fun into the debate of Olympic boycott, North Korea, China’s biggest ally, announced that it cannot attend the Olympics due to “hostile forces” and Covid-19 pandemic but pledged support to China for a successful event.[8] The truism, however, is that the IOC barred North Korea in September 2021 from participating in any Olympic events in 2022, citing Pyongyang’s unconventional and “unilateral decision” not to attend the Tokyo Summer Olympic in 2021. Therefore, Pyongyang’s announcement for skipping the event was largely a redundant statement. Though Pyongyang often uses the term “hostile forces” referring to the US, it has not officially allowed a single person into the country since March 2020 under its Covid-19 prevention policy, making it impossible for athletes to leave the country on a temporary basis. As expected, China endorsed North Korea’s position and appreciated all support extended to it for hosting the Olympics.[9]

With this development, any hope of the Beijing Winter Olympics becoming an event facilitating the reconciliation between the two Koreas has come to a nought. It may be recalled that during the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, athletes from the rival countries marched together in the opening ceremony and fielded a single team in women’s hockey. Such hopes were dashed by North Korea’s non-participation and subsequent conduct of a hypersonic missile test in its first weapon’s test in two months, leaving the Korean imbroglio in tatters. From the boycott experience it transpires if a global event is seen to be an occasion to bring reconciliation between nations holding conflicting viewpoints, such expectations are clearly misplaced. If Beijing sees the US leading the boycott movement as “outright political provocation”, there could be no expectation of a thaw in the troubled Sino-US relations.

Endnotes :

[1]Vikrant Thardak, “China’s Winter Olympics is going to be a Covid-safe events as most countries could boycott it”, 21 November 2021, https://tfiglobalnews.com/2021/11/21/chinas-winter-olympics-is-going-to-be-a-covid-safe-event-as-most-countries-could-boycott-it/
[2] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on December 8, 2021”, 8 December 2021, http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/lcbt/wjbfyrbt/202112/t20211208_10464208.htm
[3] “China says US will 'pay the price' for diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics”, 7 December 2021, https://www.freepressjournal.in/world/china-says-us-will-pay-the-price-for-diplomatic-boycott-of-beijing-winter-olympics
[4]https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/qfp/104481.htm
[5]Sanbeer Singh Ranhotra, “India, Japan, US, Australia and 16 more countries boycott Beijing Olympics”, 5 December 2021, https://tfiglobalnews.com/2021/12/05/india-japan-us-australia-and-16-more-countries-boycott-beijing-olympics/
[6] “Japan latest to join Beijing Olympics boycott”, 26 December 2021, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/sport/japan-latest-join-beijing-olympics-boycott
[7] “Chinese ambassador urges Japan not to join diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics”, 16 December 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3159970/chinese-ambassador-urges-japan-not-join-diplomatic-boycott?module=live&pgtype=homepage
[8] “Japan joins US boycott of Beijing Olympics”, 24 December 2021, https://www.rt.com/sport/544270-japan-boycott-beijing-olympics/
[9]Colin Zwirko, “North Korea says it can’t attend Olympics due to ‘hostile forces,’ COVID-19”, 7 January 2022, https://www.nknews.org/2022/01/north-korea-says-it-cant-attend-olympics-due-to-hostile-forces-covid-19/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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