Hearing the news that U.S. diplomats in Beijing are openly discussing the pros and cons of boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, brought to mind the last time the United States boycotted an Olympic Games—in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Carter’s boycott was a chess move in the Cold War that played out in proxy wars, with U.S. support for Soviet resisters in Afghanistan increasing under the following American administration of Ronald Reagan.
When the contemplation of a boycott of a sporting event in China is set alongside other escalatory measures in an intensifying Sino-American rivalry, I wondered is America stepping little by little towards a new Cold War with another communist regime? What is the evidence that it might be?
The Olympics boycott discussion emerged as a direct result of China’s retaliation on Western global brands to sanctions put on China by the EU, UK and the U.S. because of human rights abuses by China in its far west region of Xinjiang. The boycott tussle includes President Xi Jinping’s government launching its own boycott against retailers like Sweden’s H&M and slapping sanctions on organizations for making statements about forced labor in Xinjiang.
Add to this, Xi Jinping’s recent sweeping changes to Hong Kong elections and institutions, which give Beijing veto power over candidates and put restrictions on information that was previously public. The success of China’s crackdown in crushing protests in Hong Kong bolsters its attempts to neutralize opposition more widely. For instance, Beijing pushed back on Canada’s attempt to stop the detention of foreign nationals for geopolitical leverage. In fact, China proceeded with its secret espionage trials of two Canadian citizens and expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with the declaration that 58 governments signed against detaining dual nationals.
China is also mounting a multitude of measures in the South China Sea, including: ominously placing 40 large fishing boats along a reef that it disputes ownership with the Philippines; ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in waters claimed by Vietnam and then forcing the crew to confess to illegally entering Chinese waters; and, building two-dozen artificial islands with military airstrips and surface-to-air missile launchpads.
These recent moves are the manifestation of a view in China that its assertiveness is rational. An outlook that believes China’s rise is inevitable and Western countries are too racist and arrogant to accept reality. Chinese officials have been enamored with the “rise and fall of great nations” narrative since 2006, after China became the second-largest economy in the world. The fact that its economy is already in a post-pandemic mode and recovering faster than Western economies adds to the view that China is the power of tomorrow. The recent rebound in China’s economy pushed predictions that it will overtake the U.S. economy as the world’s biggest by 2028, two years earlier than previously forecast.
Add to these economic forecasts Xi Jinping’s plans to double the size of China’s economy by 2035—a plan to make China the global leader in everything from biotechnology to green energy and artificial intelligence—and leaders across the planet begin to see the outlines of a global order that is no longer led by the United States.
What is next?
How can Western leaders meet these challenges that China is mounting on multiple fronts? Whatever we might say about Donald Trump’s foreign policy, with regards to China Joe Biden is being very Trumpy by adopting his own brand of “America First.” However, what is different is Biden’s goal of renewing alliances and actually renewing America domestically. For example, Biden is building ties with India, Japan and Australia—the Quad—to balance China’s growing power in the South China Sea.
Domestically, Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan is also a step in the right direction. His funding proposal targets transportation, manufacturing, renewable energy, clean water and high-speed broadband to name a few sectors.
The global supply shortage in semiconductors, which today are the most crucial and expensive component in our cars, appliances and devices, is also prompting Biden to tighten measures imposed under Trump that limit China’s access to key technologies linked to the semiconductor industry. Biden is further rallying allies to mount serious investments in semiconductor fabrication and quantum computing. In a bid to reassert America and the West as the world’s leaders in semiconductor manufacturing, officials are launching a “techno-democracies” versus “techno-autocracies” campaign.
No Cold War Redux
Though belligerent measures and boycott tussles certainly make a cold or hot conflict more likely, we should keep in mind that China is not the same type of challenger as the Soviet Union was in the 1980s. Moreover, as the Biden administration presses Beijing on human rights at the same time it talks about working together on global issues. For example, in March, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Europe coaxing European leaders into forming a common front towards China, John Kerry, Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate, was attending a virtual summit co-hosted by Beijing discussing collective action.
In fact, Biden is practicing a nuanced diplomacy: be Trumpy on trade, tech and human rights but seek collaboration on climate change and the fight against the pandemic. In time, Biden may also seek a more subtle approach on trade if too much Trumpiness backfires on U.S. economic growth.
The proposed Olympic boycott is also more nuanced than a first glance might imply. Biden will try to skate along a balance beam (mixing two sporting references in one) by not employing a total ban: he will allow athletes to compete and sponsors to take part but bar top dignitaries from attending the Winter games. Yet, Biden should keep in mind what every gymnast knows, when the pressure is on and the stakes are high, falling off the balance beam is always a real possibility—especially if you are wearing ice skates.