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The U.S. State Department has said that Washington would discuss with allies a potential boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics over human rights concerns, a move that could force Japan into a corner as it grapples with how best to confront its powerful neighbor over the issue.

“It is something that we certainly wish to discuss and that it is certainly something that we understand that a coordinated approach will be not only in our interests but also in the interests of our allies and partners,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday in response to a question about a boycott. “So this is one of the issues that is on the agenda both now and going forward.”

Later, a senior U.S. official appeared to tamp down any shift in the U.S. stance on attending the games.

“Our position on the 2022 Olympics has not changed,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “We have not discussed and are not discussing any joint boycott with allies and partners.”

They added, however, that officials in the U.S. “regularly discuss common concerns” about China with allies and partners and that they would “continue to do so.”

China has come under fire for its crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its far-west Xinjiang region, with a bevvy of criticism and charges of genocide directed at Beijing. Japan, however, has been wary of challenging China on rights issues, partly out of fear of economic retaliation from its largest trading partner, though it has also cited the lack of a domestic legal basis to enact sanctions.

Japan was the only Group of Seven nation not to join in coordinated sanctions directed at top Chinese Communist Party officials last month over the rights abuses.

A man chants with others during a rally against China's treatment of its Uyghur population and Muslim minorities, in Washington in February. | REUTERS
A man chants with others during a rally against China’s treatment of its Uyghur population and Muslim minorities, in Washington in February. | REUTERS

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the government’s top spokesman, noted Tokyo’s “serious concerns” over reports of abuses in Xinjiang, but declined to give specifics about a possible boycott of the 2022 Winter Games or whether it would be on the agenda during Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s April 16 summit with U.S. President Joe Biden.

“Our understanding is that an international society needs to work closely to strongly encourage China on these issues,” he said, adding that each country was individually considering how to achieve that objective and that Japan and the U.S. remain on the same page.

A top Japanese official demurred on whether Japan should consider boycotting the Olympics since Tokyo and Beijing had mutually agreed to cooperate on successfully holding the games in their respective countries. The Beijing Olympics are scheduled to kick off Feb. 4 next year.

Olympic organizers have long attempted to insulate the games from politics, touting neutrality as a key tenet of the events, but wider issues have 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.

A Chinese government spokesman said last month that any attempts to boycott the Beijing Games “will not have the support of the international community and are futile and doomed to fail.”

A gate of what is officially known as a
A gate of what is officially known as a “vocational skills education center” is photographed in Dabancheng, in China’s far-west Xinjiang region, in September 2018. The centers have been described by critics as internment camps used to indoctrinate Uyghurs and other Muslims. | REUTERS

As for Japan, its position is likely to be informed by several factors, including but not exclusive to the U.S. position and the potential for a collective boycott.

“Beijing’s general assertive behavior toward Japan and in the Indo-Pacific will be the primary litmus test of Tokyo’s position,” said Stephen Nagy, an expert on Asian geopolitics at International Christian University in Tokyo.

This includes its moves near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu, as well as the situation near Taiwan.

Tokyo may also lean toward a boycott if its economic relationship with Beijing deteriorates.

“A downward trajectory would give Tokyo more room to consider a boycott without punitive economic measures,” he said, adding that a lot could also depend on Japan’s COVID-19 recovery and Suga’s political survival.

Suga has seen his support rate falter, mainly over his handling of the nation’s COVID-19 response, and pressure is building as Japan faces a fourth wave of the virus amid a slow vaccine rollout.

A worker sweeps the floor of the National Speed Skating stadium at Beijing Olympic Park on March 31. | AFP-JIJI
A worker sweeps the floor of the National Speed Skating stadium at Beijing Olympic Park on March 31. | AFP-JIJI

But unlike last month’s sanctions against China, a high-profile and coordinated U.S.-led boycott of the Olympics would almost certainly force Tokyo’s hand — no matter who is occupying the Prime Minister’s Office.

“If the G7 or ‘D10’ … all decide to boycott, Tokyo would find it hard to not join,” Nagy said, referring to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s envisioned grouping of the world’s 10 leading democracies.

Still, Japan could have options other than an outright boycott to send a message to China, such as not participating in the opening or closing ceremonies, Masahisa Sato, an Upper House lawmaker and director of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign affairs division, said in an interview last week.

“I question whether it’d be appropriate to take part in all parts of the games without taking any action, considering the current circumstances,” he added.

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