Malabar naval drills commence as calls for boycott of 2022 Winter Olympics emerge

9 novembre 2020
By Prof. Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

During November, the annual Malabar naval drills are taking place in the Bay of Bengal. The usual participants – India, the United States and Japan – are being joined this year by Australia, thirteen years after it last took part in the exercise.

Intended to serve as a counter to China’s growing power, the drills will likely irritate government in Beijing at a time when relations between the East Asian nation and the Western alliance have been deteriorating.

Donald Trump’s bellicose tenure as US president has ramped-up tensions with China on a multitude of fronts. Relations with neighbouring India have been no better, border skirmishes having erupted this summer resulting in the deaths of several Indian soldiers.

Australia has recently adopted a position which reflect its fears that China represents a significant threat to the country’s national sovereignty. Geography and history dictate that relations between Japan and China are always sensitive with the potential for fractiousness, even at the best of times.

It is no surprise, then, that reports are emerging of some countries contemplating a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Prominent within this group are the United States and Australia. Alongside them are the likes of Great Britain, another country with which China has a souring relationship.

Given that India is not one of alpine sport’s most notable global competitors, recent sporting spats with China have centred upon cricket. One fallout of this summer’s border deaths was a consumer backlash against Chinese brands, some of which were actively engaged in Indian sports sponsorships (notably telecommunications business Vivo). Indeed, several deals were subsequently terminated.

As for Japan, the government finds itself in a difficult position. Tokyo was supposed to host this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, which have been delayed until 2021 due to the Corona virus outbreak. Any suggestion of complicity by Japan in moves to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics would inevitably cause difficulties for the country.

Hence, it has been left to the US, Australia, Britain and other allies to make the running in fuelling talk of a boycott. The platform upon which staying away from Beijing in 2022 is being advocated is the persecution of Western China’s Uyghur minority. Some also point to Chinese interference in Hong Kong, a matter consistently emphasised by the British government.

Concern for such issues and the support of people involved is both laudable and necessary, though the moral high ground is safe territory in which to locate one’s position. It enables the allies to assert their liberal, democratic values, whilst at the same time diminishing China’s politics and its treatment of others. It is nevertheless worth keeping in mind that all of those associated with the boycott rumours remain deeply engaged in trading relations with China.

Even so, on the issue of human rights government in Beijing is globally vulnerable. China’s hosting of the Games themselves is also subject to vulnerability. Though a rather less ostentatious affair than Sochi 2014 was, or indeed Beijing 2008, China is estimated to be spending upwards of €12 billion on its staging of the Winter Games.

A boycott would undermine this investment, though the country would also lose face if countries stayed away. Furthermore, the event is supposed to mark a further step in China’s ascent to becoming a pre-eminent member of the global sport community. By threatening boycott, countries would hope to undermine the country’s growing power and effect changes in its policies.

Looking ahead, China’s sights have already moved on from the Winter Olympics with Beijing now looking ahead to making a successful bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup. Given the power of Europe and European institutions to influence FIFA’s hosting decisions, antagonising the Western alliance at this stage would risk the likelihood of a successful Chinese tournament bid.

One nevertheless gets the sense that talk of America, Britain, Australia and their allies is little more than posturing and positioning. Unlike, say, a Western boycott of Chinese consumer goods, sporting boycotts are often a low risk threat and less likely to materially affect a country’s population.

This is highly pertinent as China in 2020 is not the same as China in 2001, when Beijing was awarded the right to host 2008’s Olympic and Paralympic Games. Back then, the country was emergent and seeking to globally re-launch itself. Now, China is an established world power, embedded in networks of economic dependency.

To illustrate this, one need to look no further than sports sponsorships to understand how reliant Western organisations have become on Chinese money. Alibaba is an established IOC sponsor, whilst Mengniu Dairy has recently engaged in a unique relationship with America’s Coca Cola that saw it become a global partner of the Olympics.

At the same time, Chinese companies and brands have clustered around FIFA as the country pursues its World Cup hosting aspirations. This has created a co-dependency between the two organisations that several years ago, even FIFA’s president acknowledged had saved football’s governing body from financial problems.

With dependency comes power, which means that it seems unlikely a proposed boycott will garner enough support such that it becomes a genuine possibility. Indeed, it is worth considering that, for example, the Chinese government has already fired warning shots across the bows of British government and the English Premier League.

Earlier this summer, some of the league’s games being broadcast in China were demoted to smaller television channels. Later, the main television contact for television coverage of Premier League football in China was terminated, being replaced with a one-year deal that is up for renewal in the last quarter of 2021 (ahead of the Winter Games in the first quarter of 2022).

Given the highly lucrative and strategically important nature of Premier League television rights to the British economy, one suspects that the British government will be highly reluctant to press its demands for countries to boycott Beijing’s next Olympics.

All of which means that, as the ships of four nations circuit the Indian Ocean to signal their strength towards an Eastern audience, so there are other nations using the 2022 Winter Games and a threat of boycott for very similar purposes. It will be a surprise if a large contingent of athletes misses the Beijing event, though in the meantime the bellicose noise could be defeaning.


This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon
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