After nearly a year of hype by members of Congress, US President Joe Biden this week announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which Beijing swiftly condemned, setting off a diplomatic tug of war in boycotting the Winter Games.
As expected, a few of the US’s closest allies joined the US boycott, but others were surprisingly ambiguous, as they were clearly in a dilemma. The most striking example is Japan, which has so far not said whether it will join the diplomatic boycott. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s comment that Japan “would like to make our own decision from the standpoint of our national interests” is intriguing. South Korean officials have also sent signals that it is not considering a boycott.
On 6 December, the White House cited ongoing genocide and “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang” in announcing that no officials will be attending the Winter Olympics. On 8 December, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also announced they would be joining the diplomatic boycott — in the case of Britain, “effectively” so. These three countries seem to have coordinated their response, with Australia leading and the UK and Canada following. Australia has crossed diplomatic swords with China, and in September it embarked on the AUKUS security arrangement with the US and UK.
But the longer this goes on, the less favourable it will be for the US.
New Zealand, which is in the Five-Eyes alliance along with the US, Australia, the UK and Canada, had announced even earlier, following the White House boycott announcement, that it would not be sending officials at ministerial level to the Beijing Games. And to avoid directly offending China, it cited the pandemic to justify its actions.
The European Union (EU) has not announced its decision; apparently it is coordinating a response. Japan is also probably adopting a wait-and-see approach, hoping to find a compromise that will satisfy the US and not offend China. But the longer this goes on, the less favourable it will be for the US. French Education and Sports Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer confirmed on 9 December that a junior sports minister, Minister Delegate in charge of Sports Roxana Maracineanu, would attend the Winter Games, while Italy also said on 7 December that it would not join the boycott.
EU member and Baltic state Lithuania — which had gotten into a row with China after it set up an office named after Taiwan — announced last week that its president and ministers will not be attending the Winter Games. Lithuania has recently taken the lead among the European countries and even the US in opposing Beijing, but the EU has criticised its actions in challenging Beijing one on one. Instead of considering the interests of the EU as well as other EU members, they feel that Lithuania is trying to get on the good side of the US.
Safety of ambiguity preferred
This diplomatic boycott has become a test of solidarity of US allies. It is worth noting that even Australia, the UK, and Canada — which have joined the boycott — have not clearly agreed with, or have even rejected, the line that there is “genocide” going on in Xinjiang, which shows that the US is not convincing enough on the issue. And in deciding on taking action, each country would seriously weigh up whether it is worth disappointing their own athletes while also facing retaliation from China.
To put it in plain terms, the boycott resulted in the loss of face and nothing else. Athletes can still compete, while there are no restrictions on international sponsors.
Then again, while “boycott” sounds like a big thing, adding the “diplomatic” prefix in fact makes it more symbolic than substantive. To put it in plain terms, the boycott resulted in the loss of face and nothing else. Athletes can still compete, while there are no restrictions on international sponsors. As for having fewer government representatives at the opening ceremony, most people may not even feel the difference.
In that case, why did China react strongly and warn that the US “will pay a price for its erroneous actions”? And why did Washington feel the need to expend political capital to launch a diplomatic boycott, which ran the risk of embarrassment if there were few followers and might have a negative impact on the easing up of China-US relations?
At the end of the day, the biggest factor determining the US’s attitude towards the Beijing Winter Olympics does not lie with whether there is a “genocide” in Xinjiang, but with China-US competition and Biden’s internal affairs.
An NBC commentary analysed that following China’s increasing influence on the international stage, China has cast a shadow on the US in the political arena, and the American public sees it representing competition in the economy, jobs and job opportunities. Ambitious politicians are also using the public’s fear of American hegemony under threat to win eyeballs and votes.
For example, Democratic Representative Tim Ryan, who is running for an open Senate seat next year, wants the Winter Olympics to be “hosted elsewhere”. Ryan, together with Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a potential presidential candidate in the next elections, advocate a full boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Over the years, playing up mainland China issues has been the automated teller machine (ATM) of votes for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party. Following China’s rise, being anti-China has also become the biggest point of consensus among US political parties. In that sense, China has also become the ATM of both the US’s Democratic and Republican parties.
Milking the China ATM with a light touch
This is the crux of Biden’s stress and dilemma. On one hand, the US still needs to cooperate with China in many areas, such as reducing tariffs on Chinese goods to help ease inflationary pressures. But Biden needs to respond to calls for an anti-China stance as well, and needs a certain level of China-US conflict and justification for the “China threat” theory to get through next year’s mid-term elections.
In future, China-US competition would be more of a competition between governance systems, where winning is determined by which of the players, one run under American democracy and the other socialism with Chinese characteristics, will be more likely to make mistakes or more able to avoid mistakes.
Following the Xi-Biden virtual summit in November, many people have been hoping that China-US tensions would be dialled down. However, the ideological differences between them and the struggle for global leadership are indeed issues that cannot be avoided. Hence, the extent to which tensions could be eased was limited and the two soon found themselves going head to head on Taiwan, the Summit for Democracy and the Winter Olympics.
At present, fewer than ten countries have joined the high-profile diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, reflecting the current state of the US’s influence. More crucially, China no longer cares much even if more countries were to boycott the sporting event. As China’s level of strength swiftly catches up with the US’s, it will become increasingly difficult to force China to change its behaviour through external pressure and containment. As far as China is concerned, its relationship with the US may be one of cooperation when cooperation is possible, and going their separate ways when cooperation is not possible.
In future, China-US competition would be more of a competition between governance systems, where winning is determined by which of the players, one run under American democracy and the other socialism with Chinese characteristics, will be more likely to make mistakes or more able to avoid mistakes. Will it be the centralised Chinese system? Or American democracy controlled by the two political parties?
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