Making a point? The dangers of Olympic diplomacy

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When Joe Biden came out of a three-hour-long meeting with President Xi and suggested that the US might boycott the upcoming Winter in Beijing, it became clear that US-Sino relations had slumped to a new low.

Against the backdrop of genocidal policy towards Uyghur Muslims, an increasingly imperialist Belt and Road scheme and a crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, many in the West are now sincerely arguing for a boycott of the Games. 

Whilst it might seem wise to de-platform and isolate a perceived hostile state acting irreconcilably against prized Western values, boycotting Beijing 2022 might also push the world’s two great superpowers further apart and fuel Beijing’s propaganda machine, resulting in a great act of diplomatic self-harm. 

It is the participation of athletes across the globe that legitimise it as a major international event

Firstly, the proposed boycott being discussed on Downing Street and in Washington D.C. is merely a diplomatic one – resulting in the absence of dignitaries rather than athletes themselves. Whilst declining to send Prince William to wave the Union Jack might be regarded as disregarding the event in the British media, it is unlikely to cause many, especially in Beijing, to bat an eyelid. For a sporting event of the Olympics’ stature, it is the participation of athletes across the globe that legitimise it as a major international event. 

As long as the majority of the world’s athletes compete in Beijing and win medals, the event will be valid and just as memorable as those organised by less controversial hosts. Thus, a boycott involving just diplomats and officialdom would do little to damage the legitimacy and credibility of China’s Games. Instead, such a half-hearted measure would only make the West look weak, showcasing ourselves to be an ineffective laughing stock for the Chinese (and its allies’) state media.

Moreover, history suggests that even boycotts involving athletes lead to little more than tit-for-tat exchanges. The US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, in turn, led to a retaliatory snub by the Soviet Eastern Bloc and satellite states in Los Angeles in 1984. Although the 1980 boycott was widely supported by over 60 nations and did undermine the legitimacy of the event, it is inconceivable to think that today the US would be as well-supported by a large and broad coalition of countries, eager to shun the Games and blatantly oppose China. A boycott today would lack the international backing present in 1980 to cause any disruption to the Games or China’s marketing of them.

The two economic clumps have never had a greater incentive to collaborate on a single issue

Indeed, if Biden goes ahead with his proposed boycott, then Xi very well might boycott future events backed by the West, with the possibility of Belt and Road funded countries in Africa and Asia following suit. As conveyed by his absence from the COP26 event, this could derail crucial negotiation and undermine necessary diplomacy concerning big issues like climate change. The risk of further alienating the world’s greatest producer of greenhouse gases when dialogue on the matter is more urgent than ever before might be too great for the West to gamble on. The two economic clumps have never had a greater incentive to collaborate on a single issue. 

Owning the world’s largest standing army, a robust cyberattack force and an economy set to become the largest, overtaking the US by 2028, it is becoming harder to deny that China is now and has been a great world power and deserves greater visible respect. Whilst outstanding differences do remain, feeble PR stunts designed to cause a storm in the Western media will do little to change China’s position. Not sending a minister or two when the rest of the sporting world is present, will do little to delegitimise and denounce China elsewhere. The West, on the other hand, simply does not have the military and economic clout that it once did to force opposing states into line.

To address these grievances, it might be wise to instead treat China for what it is: a superpower, and eventually the greatest; and like with any superpower use the diplomatic channels and soft power that can be exhibited at major sporting events, to advocate for change. With an increasingly hostile Russia and a disruptive Turkey led by Erdagon in the Middle East, the West cannot afford to risk a four-way Cold War. It is time to own up to the fact that China’s dominance is here to stay. To achieve any shift in policy whether it be human rights or climate change or dealing with a hostile Russia, deeper reflection is needed on whether we should maintain a friendlier attitude with China until absolutely necessary not to. 

Image: Peter23 via Wikimedia Commons

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