Hosting the Olympics is an honor that cities and nations vie for with the same fervor their athletes bring to the games. While there is no guarantee that the prerequisite financial investments will pay off, many countries are drawn to the highly-coveted and unquantifiable prize of soft power. The Olympics have traditionally been a means for newly-developed nations to make their debut on the global stage, and for aging powers to freshen their images internationally. Sochi was selected as the 2014 host city at the height of BRICs fever, at a time when Russia was keen to flaunt the progress it had made following the post-Soviet fall from grace. However, Sochi demonstrated that hosting the Olympics can be a diplomatic liability, as the intensified scrutiny of Russia’s administration overshadowed soft power and medal count pride. Even if Sochi could have been considered a victory for the Putin administration, any gains were swiftly erased when Russian boots touched down in Crimea. There is cause for concern regarding the games’ continuing influence on international relations as the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics loom, threatening to further upset the mood in East Asia.
Like many international sporting events, the Olympics can be a lightning rod for nationalist fervor. During the 2012 London Olympics, an incorrect report claiming that a Chinese judge had disqualified Park Tae-hwan from the 400m freestyle sparked an explosion of anti-Chinese sentiment on South Korean social media. The outburst came only weeks after a media firestorm investigating the alleged torture of a prominent South Korean activist in Chinese custody. Later, a South Korean soccer player was denied his medal after holding up a sign reading “Dokdo is Our Territory,” referring to an ongoing territorial dispute with Japan. In both instances, external controversy was amplified by Olympic participation.
Recent regional tensions in East Asia have been exacerbated by displeasure surrounding the conduct of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Although his administration does not go so far as to incite confrontation or foment xenophobia, neither does it offer much protest of those who do. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Mr. Abe’s reputation is flagging in neighboring countries – a recent survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found him trailing Kim Jong Un in favorability rankings among South Korean citizens. A Pew Research poll earlier this year reported that only six percent of Chinese citizens have a favorable view of Japan.
The US pivot to Asia is already threatened by Mr. Abe’s inflammatory right-wing rhetoric, but the inflated nationalistic mores that will likely accompany the two upcoming Asian Olympiads could be an obstacle to regional stability too great for the United States to overcome. Washington recognizes Japan as a vital ally in the Pacific, which is why it is essential that the Obama administration do something to rein him in before he completely goes off the reservation and risks open conflict. As the Pentagon announces belt-tightening measures and future budgetary constraints, the State Department must step in to provide diplomatic solutions where the mere presence of warships has sufficed in the past. This will have the added effect of building goodwill between neighbors rather than simply rallying them together as grudging allies in opposition of North Korea. Now is the time for the United States to bring Japan, South Korea and China all to the table for common-ground initiatives, like fighting climate change or promoting education. Securing China’s cooperation in heading off discord at the games should be prioritized by the US State Department, and based on China’s own assertions as an Olympic host nation, they should happily agree.
Although human rights watchdog groups concerned with Tibet and Darfur demanded a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Games, the Chinese government maintained the position that the Olympics should remain politically neutral. In response to the calls for boycott on political grounds, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhai Jun said, “These people’s remarks run contrary to the spirit of the Olympics and work against the will of the people of the world.” Beijing’s smart diplomacy leading up to the 2008 Games was an effective reminder that widespread boycotts have not occurred since Los Angeles in 1984; the open politicization of Olympic participation is a convention that we have grown out of since the end of the Cold War. The Chinese have made it clear that the games can be a chance for well-mannered discourse, but that sporting events should be prioritized above all else. In following through, China has set the new bar for the Olympics in East Asia – theirs is an example for South Korea and Japan to follow.
China should welcome the 2018 and 2020 Olympics as opportunities to air the grievances for which it can provide justification to the global community. While bilateral issues in the Pacific are most often sidelined in the Western media, these two occasions will allow Beijing to make a case for diplomatic issues ranging from territorial claims to trade disputes as the world’s gaze is fixated on East Asia. However, there is a fine line between appearing merely opportunistic and coming off as scheming and exploitative. If the Chinese approach is indelicate and boils over into anger at the Olympic Games, Beijing can expect little sympathy. If China offers new and compelling arguments for their positions, the world will be listening.
Colin Moreshead is a freelance writer living and working in Tokyo. His research focuses primarily on East Asian trade relations and exchange rate policy.