allies, Australia, Beijing Olympics, Biden, boycotts, Canada, China, European Union, Germany, Indo-Pacific, Italy, Japan, multilateralism, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, semiconductors, South Korea, Taiwan, United Kingdom, Winter Olympics
One of President Biden’s main foreign policy aims has been to create an international coalition to resist continually mounting belligerence by China, and to curb the massive, decades-long flows of foreign capital and technological knowhow that have done so much to strengthen and enrich the People’s Republic. And whatever promise is held by this anti-China strategy has become vitally important lately because of Beijing’s intensifying intimidation campaign against Taiwan, whose autonomy has become a vital U.S. interest due to its world leadership in semiconductor manufacturing processes.
That’s why it’s so discouraging to report that, as of this morning, so few of the allies on which Mr. Biden is counting have been willing even to take so limited a step as joining the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in China’s capital Beijing in February.
Australia and the United Kingdom signed on this morning. And a bit later, so did Canada. But so far, that’s it. According to this Reuters article, Japan is considering not sending cabinet members to the Games but South Korea isn’t even thinking about this step. The New York Times reports that New Zealand had previously decided not to send any officials to China but cited CCP Virus-related health concerns as the reason; that the European Union’s (EU) European Parliament has passed a resolution backing a boycott barring “verifiable improvement” in China’s human rights situation, but one that’s non-binding; that the EU’s separate policymaking arm has declined to support the U.S. action; EU member France is hiding behind this EU skirt so far; fellow EU member Italy has said it’s not on board; and Olaf Scholz, the new leader of another EU member, Germany, clearly doesn’t want to be.
It’s not that joining the American initiative will produce any meaningful changes in China’s behavior. Indeed, official foreign participation in and attendance at Olympics isn’t exactly the norm.
It’s true, moreover, as The Times mentioned, that many of these countries and the EU collectively have imposed human rights sanctions on China; that some have begun thinking about how to shield their economies from Beijing’s power and influence (see, e.g., here and here); and that some have begun to increase their own defense spending in response to China’s own buildup and provocations (see, e.g., here and here), or become more active militarily in the Indo-Pacific region (see, e.g., here).
At the same time, boosting military budgets and even sending warships on port calls and other East Asian missions is a far cry from credibly pledging to come to the U.S.’ and Taiwan’s aid if China moves against the island. (It’s also important to note that an American military response, or at least a prompt one, is far from certain, either, since the United States is not yet obliged by treaty to come to Taiwan’s defense.)
And if countries are reluctant to take even a symbolic step like diplomatically boycotting the Beijing Olympics, which doesn’t even entail further sanctions, can they really be counted on to enter hostilities against China?
President Biden is fond of saying that “America is back” in its role as free world leader following an alleged Trump administration abdication. But leaders by definition need followers, and when it comes to confronting China meaningfully, it’s not clear right now that he has many that are reliable.