U.S. officials to boycott Beijing Olympics as Japan eyes next move

After months of deliberation, the White House has decided not to send government officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics over China’s human rights “atrocities” — a move that leaves Japan in a bind as it weighs whether to follow suit and risk angering its neighbor and top trading partner.

“The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games, given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a news conference in Washington on Monday.

Psaki said that U.S. diplomatic or official representation would effectively treat the Beijing Games, which are due to start on Feb. 4, “as business as usual” despite China’s “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities” in its far-west Xinjiang region.

“We simply can’t do that,” Psaki said.

American athletes will still be allowed to participate in the Olympics.

“The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” Psaki said. “We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home.”

Asked about other countries joining the diplomatic boycott, Psaki said the United States had already informed its allies of the decision, but would “leave it to them to make their own decisions.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki holds a news briefing in Washington on Monday. | REUTERS
White House press secretary Jen Psaki holds a news briefing in Washington on Monday. | REUTERS

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that Washington has been consulting with allies and partners on a “shared approach” to the Games in light of their concerns about China’s rights record.

While Britain and Australia have also reportedly eyed a diplomatic boycott, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said late last month that Tokyo’s decision on the issue would have to take his country’s national interests into consideration.

“Each country has its own position and way of thinking,” Kishida said. “Japan will consider things from its own perspective.”

Kishida will have to balance Japan’s economic interests in China with calls from conservative lawmakers to join the U.S. diplomatic boycott amid not only Tokyo’s growing focus on human rights but also Beijing’s moves near Taiwan and its repeated intrusions by government ships into waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Beijing also claims the islands, which it calls Diaoyu.

Tokyo’s decision will also come as a crucial year looms for Sino-Japanese relations.

Japan, which has been unusually vocal over rights issues and China’s military assertiveness near Taiwan over the past year, will be hoping to avoid a serious confrontation with Beijing in 2022 as the two Asian powerhouses mark 50 years of diplomatic ties.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert and director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said that she doubted Japan would join the fray, though she expected “a few allies to come on board, but perhaps not many.”

About the U.S. move, Glaser said the Biden administration “had no choice” but to follow through on a diplomatic boycott.

“The decision to label China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide meant that no U.S. official could attend the Games,” she said, noting that other countries have not used such provocative terminology.

But the announcement was unlikely to take Beijing by surprise, since news of the Biden administration’s apparent preference for the limited move, rather than a full-on boycott, had effectively been leaked in recent months.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers a policy speech during an extraordinary session of parliament in Tokyo on Monday. | BLOOMBERG
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers a policy speech during an extraordinary session of parliament in Tokyo on Monday. | BLOOMBERG

The U.S.-China relationship has been in free fall over a variety of issues, including human rights, trade and the two countries’ military moves in the Indo-Pacific region. Although U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held talks last month focused on managing the intensifying rivalry, the latest move was certain to inflame tensions once again.

After a report emerged a day earlier of the looming diplomatic boycott, China urged U.S. politicians to avoid hurting bilateral ties, vowing that Beijing would take “countermeasures” if necessary.

“If the U.S. insists on willfully clinging to its course, China will take resolute countermeasures,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

The International Olympic Committee said in a statement after the U.S. announcement that “the presence of government officials and diplomats is a purely political decision for each government, which the IOC in its political neutrality fully respects.”

The announcement “also makes clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics, and we welcome this,” it added.

Olympic organizers have long attempted to insulate the Games from politics, touting neutrality as a key tenet of the events. But 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 U.S., 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.

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