Boycott Is out of the Bag

Anastasia Pyatachkova, an expert with the Valdai Discussion Club,* speaks on the risks of the American-led diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Despite the efforts of the U.S. and its allies, China argues that there is no diplomatic boycott that will hurt the Olympics. The plausibility of this assertion is reinforced by the fact there is no unity over the boycott even among Western nations. Governments are still officially encouraging their athletes to participate in the Olympics, while the boycott remains strictly a political issue. Admittedly, the situation is far from promising, since China’s reputation is at stake in the context of the growing confrontation with the U.S.

Escalating Tensions around the Olympics

In the early 1970s, sporting events helped the U.S. and China improve relations during the pingpong diplomacy period. Now the situation is reversed. On Dec. 6, Washington announced its diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. According to Minister Counsellor Liu Pengyu, American political leaders were not even invited to the Olympics. Nevertheless, the situation does not appear to be a coincidence; heated political debate is traditional before every Olympic game. Russia also faced this situation before the recent 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Beijing had a similar experience prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics. What the two Olympics have in common is not only that they share a host city, but they face the persistent use of human rights rhetoric as diplomatic leverage. For example, when the Olympic Flame was being passed on to Beijing, there were protests in a number of cities around the world (e.g., London and Paris) calling for the protection of human rights in Tibet.

At the time, China asserted that political debate would not affect the success of the Winter Olympics. China continues to maintain that position. However, much has changed since then. The confrontation between the U.S. and China is growing at the moment, while China’s global political influence has noticeably increased. That is why the U.S. was against any diplomatic boycott in 2008, but given the growing unrest, the U.S. staunchly supported such a drastic measure at the end of 2021.

What Can a Diplomatic Boycott Achieve?

When it comes to the goals of the boycott, we can identify three main objectives: to deter China, to undermine China’s international reputation, and to tackle U.S. domestic political issues. The U.S. made its first attempt to deter China in 2018 with the beginning of the trade war. The U.S. has used sanctions and human rights rhetoric as leverage toward this end. In the meantime, China has emphasized the need for international cooperation when it comes to maintaining its independence and territorial integrity. In general, the Chinese-American rivalry involves virtually the same issues: Tibet, Taiwan, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

China’s opponents often rebuke it for creating debt traps, its harsh political rhetoric and its desire to censor content about China in other countries, as is the case with the Belt and Road Initiative. In this sense, it would improve China’s image if the Olympics were to take place there since the Olympics are generally perceived positively by the international community. Therefore, the U.S. doesn’t want China to have this opportunity, especially when China’s effort to fight COVID-19 have been so successful. In addition, the U.S. is focusing on China to divert attention from its many domestic issues, including those related to the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic.

On the one hand, Beijing has not lost this diplomatic game yet. The very idea of the boycott under the pretext of protecting human rights is neither new nor convincing, given that the problem has been discussed and has existed long before preparations for the Olympics began. Moreover, supporters of the boycott themselves emphasize that diplomacy should not mix with sports, something which also allows them to maintain their status quo.

Beijing’s position is further strengthened by the lack of a unified position among Western countries regarding the boycott. Even the closest U.S. allies didn’t immediately support the boycott immediately. The new German government headed by Olaf Scholz, provided a rather restrained response. Emmanuel Macron also announced that France had no plans to join the boycott. At the same time, the U.S. managed to win official support from the International Olympic Committee that stressed the U.S. was within its rights to make such a decision. Nicola Beer, vice president of the European Parliament, also spoke in support of the boycott.

In contrast, Moscow expressed its strong opposition to exploiting sporting events for political purposes. It is likely that Beijing will be able to count on Moscow’s goodwill in the future as well. Russia knows better than anyone what pressure politics are like when it comes to major international competitions, as it has repeatedly had to deal with tension in connection with its athletes during international sporting events.

At the same time, it is not quite correct to say that China won’t face any risk to its reputation given the situation. In the first place, relations between China and America could escalate. This could lead to further diplomatic and economic retaliation in the form of negative press for China. Second, the Chinese demand that its government be strong and resist American pressure in the face of domestic economic and energy crises facing their country. Third, a stressful environment leads to doping scandals and other unsettling situations during Olympic games, which can affect the event’s image.

What Can We Expect from China?

If the U.S. diplomatic strategy is generally quite clear, the Chinese response has been more enigmatic. It is highly important to consider more than just the Olympics. One has to take more complex developments into account, including the emergence of new multilateral security pacts aimed at deterring China’s influence (e.g., AUKUS).

Despite growing tensions, China’s response has been largely limited to political rhetoric. What is interesting here is that China is increasingly employing its own coercive economic measures. For example, China has recently imposed extraterritorial sanctions on Lithuania.

It is apparent that China is engaging less frequently in direct confrontation with the U.S., but such a direct encounter cannot be ruled out; there have already been instances when China has imposed economic sanctions on American companies. In addition, Australia and other global powers have already joined the Olympic boycott. Earlier, Australia was one of the countries that supported the investigation into the origin of COVID-19, something China responded to by taking coercive economic measures.

China is now faced with the great challenge of hosting an international sporting event in the midst of a zero-COVID policy. As many experts note, Xi Jinping’s credibility is largely built on his effort to overcome the pandemic. Rising international tensions will by no means make this task any easier. Therefore, it is safe to assume that if pressure on Beijing grows, it will be forced to take a tougher position in self-defense. China will have to protect its major interests once again.

The author is a Valdai Discussion Club expert, deputy head of the Asia-Pacific Department at the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies, and academic supervisor of the International Relations Degree Program at the National Research University of the Higher School of Economics.

*Translator’s Note: The Valdai Discussion Club is a Moscow-based think tank and discussion forum, established in 2004.

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