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" — leaving Japan to weigh 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 going ahead with 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.”
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.
Japan has yet to decide on any action on the Games, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said at a news conference Tuesday in Tokyo.
Hayashi said that Japan would reach a decision on the issue "at an appropriate time" and that Tokyo continues to place importance on human rights issues and dialogue with the Chinese side.
New Zealand became the first to join the U.S., saying Tuesday that it would not send diplomats to the Games. However, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said the move was more influenced by safety concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic than rights issues.
"There was a range of factors but mostly to do with COVID and the fact that the logistics of travel and so on around COVID are not conducive to that kind of trip," he told state broadcaster TVNZ. "But we've made clear to China on numerous occasions our concerns about human rights issues — as recently as the prime minister talking to (Chinese) President Xi (Jinping).”
Robertson said New Zealand had already conveyed the decision to China in October.
While Britain and Australia have also reportedly eyed a diplomatic boycott, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday reiterated that Tokyo’s decision on the issue would be independent and focus on Japan’s "national interests."
"We would like to make our own decision from the standpoint of our national interests" by considering the potential impact on Japan's diplomacy and the Olympics, Kishida said.
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.
Whatever Japan’s decision ends up being, it’s likely to come at the last minute, according to one senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official.
“Looking at the Tokyo Olympics process, (each country’s decision on whether to come) was made just before (those Games),” the official said. While the decisions to attend the Tokyo Games were primarily based on the coronavirus situation, “this time, they’ll be made while looking at the virus and a variety of situations," he added, referring to human rights issues.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert and director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said 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.
The announcement did not appear 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.
China warned on Tuesday that a U.S diplomatic boycott could harm two-way dialogue and cooperation in important areas, and called for politics to be kept out of sports.
Beijing opposes the boycott and would take "resolute countermeasures," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a press briefing in Beijing, adding that the U.S. "plot" of trying to disrupt the Olympics was doomed to fail, leading to a loss of "moral authority and credibility."
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 China's Xi held talks last month focused on managing the intensifying rivalry, the latest move was certain to inflame tensions once again.
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.
But while Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, called the boycott “a crucial step” in challenging Beijing over its human rights abuses, she said more must be done.
“This shouldn’t be the only action,” she said. “The U.S. should now redouble efforts with like-minded governments to investigate and map out pathways to accountability for those responsible for these crimes and justice for the survivors.”
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.
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.
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