In 2008, despite growing concerns about human rights abuses in China, the Summer Olympics in Beijing were a sporting and diplomatic triumph for the communist regime. In an endorsement of the global event, George W. Bush became the first US president to travel abroad for an Olympic Games, spending four days in Beijing mingling with athletes and later describing it as a “very uplifting experience”.
It’s a different story today, as Beijing prepares to host the 24th Winter Olympics in less than two months’ time. Concerns over China’s human rights record have grown. Its forcible transfer of many of the Uighur population into “re-education” camps in Xinjiang and an increasingly restrictive regime in Hong Kong have led this year to more than 180 human rights organisations calling for an athlete boycott of the Games.
While an athlete ban has been considered unlikely, this week the US government announced a diplomatic boycott. US President Joe Biden may not be as direct or as colourful in his criticism of China as his predecessor, Donald Trump, but the boycott reaffirms that the rivalry between the world’s two biggest economies is no less tense.
China was quick to respond. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman attacked the US administration, declaring the boycott “will only make the American side lose more morality and credibility” and warning of unspecified “countermeasures”. It’s tit-for-tat diplomacy that has almost become routine.
But America’s move also put pressure on its traditional allies, from whom it has received a mixed response. In Europe, Italy, which would have weighed up its role as host of the next Winter Olympics, has so far been adamant it will not join the ban. France, Germany and Britain are likewise noncommittal to this point. Japan has been unwilling to show its hand, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida saying no decision had been made.
A man walks past the Olympic rings on the exterior of Beijing’s National Stadium, which will be a venue for the Winter Olympics.Credit:AP
Australia showed no such caution. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that we would join America in a diplomatic protest. Mr Morrison didn’t skirt around the reasons, as some others may do to express displeasure. He said China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, its wave of trade strikes against Australia and its refusal to return phone calls from Australian ministers were the main reasons behind the move.
Overall, The Age believes the government’s position has merit, although Australia will inevitably be portrayed as jumping onto the US bandwagon as a matter of course with a gesture that is unlikely to make any difference to China’s actions.
China’s human rights record is alarming and worsening. Its willingness to crack down on dissent has become more evident in recent years under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, whose bellicose rhetoric and expansionist tendencies are concerning for the region. Even a gesture has meaning in these circumstances.
Australia, as a middle power, needs to stand up for itself when our rights and interests are threatened, and we should not retreat from defending and promoting our values as a liberal democracy. But Australia also needs to play the long game. China is growing fast and competing with the US to become the dominant diplomatic, economic and military force in the Asian region, our neighbourhood.
At some point, Australia will need to learn how to maintain a relationship with China that does not result in a steady stream of diplomatic squabbles, or bellicose statements about a new Cold War.
If Australia is to ever rid itself of its characterisation in the region as “deputy sheriff” to the US, then it needs to more clearly differentiate its decision-making from that which comes out of the US administration. The Beijing Games will be a chance to admire the feats of the world’s best athletes. But Australia’s decision to join a diplomatic boycott does remind us that big international sporting events are not simply about the sport: they are about internal and external reputation management. When it comes to the Olympics, sport and politics are often an uneasy mix.
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