The United States has announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games that China will host in February.
The move was not a surprise, as President Joe Biden had been weighing the decision for months. Several other governments quickly joined the U.S., saying that they will not be sending diplomats, either. China angrily denounced the boycotts.
The U.S. is right to withhold diplomatic support for this event. The presence of athletes is another matter; they should participate. Denying them the chance to compete would unfairly punish them. The Chinese government’s behavior has crossed important lines, however, and it should not be rewarded with the presence of foreign dignitaries at an event that Beijing will use to celebrate its status and accomplishments.
The U.S. decision was prompted by “genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these Games as business as usual in the face of egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that,” she explained at a news conference earlier in the week.
In fact, the list of offensive Chinese government behaviors is longer. It includes the suppression of human rights in Hong Kong; the controversy surrounding Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who announced that she was assaulted by a former high-ranking Chinese official and promptly disappeared (and resurfaced under very suspect conditions); as well as the kidnapping and arbitrary detention of foreign citizens to obtain leverage against their governments.
While the Biden administration consulted with other nations ahead of the announcement, it and they say there was no pressure to follow suit. Nevertheless, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have said that they too will boycott the Games, sending athletes but not diplomats. New Zealand will not send diplomats either, but that reflects concern about COVID-19 and not political issues.
Those governments make up the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group. As long as only they boycott the Games, China can dismiss their complaints as petulance by Caucasian nations that are part of a dying order.
News that Lithuania and Kosovo will join the boycott changes the complexion of the protest. It also means that European deliberations will intensify. In July, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a boycott. The European Commission provided a studiously neutral statement, voicing support for events like the Olympics that can help spread “positive values” and promote “freedom and human rights at the global level,” while insisting that “such platforms should not be used for political propaganda.” France and Italy have said that they will not join the boycott. The decision poses an early foreign policy challenge for Olaf Scholz, who replaced Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor earlier this week.
Japan remains on the fence. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that he was aware of the U.S. decision and that he would “decide on Japan’s response based on our national interest.” That likely means that he is waiting to see how widespread the boycott becomes. He will balance the potential damage to Japan’s image by a decision to send diplomats against the certain pain that Beijing will inflict if it does not.
A group of ruling party lawmakers has called on Japan to join the boycott, and the government is reportedly considering the dispatch of non-Cabinet level officials, such as Sports Agency Commissioner Murofushi Koji and Japanese Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita. That is the right decision.
China is keeping score. Noting that boycotting diplomats had not even been invited to the Games, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the Games are “not a stage for political posturing and manipulation” and called the move “a grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic Charter, a blatant political provocation and a serious affront to the 1.4 billion Chinese people.” He added that the U.S. would “pay a price” for its decision and warned of “resolute countermeasures.” At the very least, the U.S. can expect a similar boycott when it hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and if it prevails in its bid for the 2030 Winter Games.
Boycotts are not without precedent. In 1956, there were two boycotts of Games held in Melbourne, Australia, but neither was a protest against the host: One was a response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary months before, while the other protested Israel’s takeover of the Suez Canal. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Games that the Soviet Union hosted, in protest against the invasion of Afghanistan the year before. The Soviets retaliated four years later by boycotting the Los Angeles Games. In no case, did the protest have any impact.
Nor are they likely to have any effect this time. China will dismiss the boycott as persecution rather than protest. It will use the COVID-19 pandemic to excuse a diminished diplomatic presence. The International Olympic Committee will stick to its line of strict neutrality, focusing on its bottom line rather than the symbolism of the Games, an approach that mirrors that of most of the world.
It could and should pay strict attention to whether Beijing honors commitments that it made when it bid to host the event, but that too is unlikely and violations, like those that occurred when Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, will be ignored.
The IOC will insist instead on putting the athletes first, which is the correct approach. Their performance is what matters. Japan and other nations should cheer their athletes on from afar. A diplomatic boycott sends the right signal to the Chinese government without depriving those individuals who have worked so hard their moment to shine.
The Japan Times Editorial Board