Beijing Games add pressure on Tokyo to hold Olympics

TOKYO • There are many reasons why Japan is determined to hold the already-delayed Tokyo Olympics this summer, but one that is seldom discussed publicly: China.

Beijing is set to host the Winter Games next year, and China has made it clear that it plans to push ahead, with Covid-19 largely contained within its borders.

That has caught the attention of Japanese government officials, who have been citing China's increased publicity for the Winter Olympics in their conversations with the organisers of the Tokyo Games, due to start on July 23.

Ongoing outbreaks in many places, including Japan, have put a question mark over whether the Games should go ahead as planned but Japan wants to plough ahead despite the pandemic.

The crisis has made the Olympics more of a test of who can control the virus better, fuelling a low-grade geopolitical rivalry between China, which has a zero-tolerance approach to snuffing out the pathogen, and Japan, where everyday life has been less disrupted but coronavirus cases persist.

"The weight of China, especially among Japan's conservatives, is quite immense in terms of the way they see their own position and the way they see Japan," said David Leheny, a politics professor at Waseda University.

"If Japan isn't able to have the Olympics because it hasn't handled it well or vaccination hasn't proceeded quickly enough - and if China is able to do that, it's just going to be another blow."

China is by far Japan's biggest trading partner, and also one of its biggest security threats, with ships from both countries tailing one another around disputed East China Sea islands on a daily basis.

While Japan can no longer hope to compete with China in terms of economic size or military might, it would in normal times at least have stood a good chance of throwing a better party.

The country's fear of losing face against its closest regional rival has upped the ante for the Summer Games, which continue to face low public support and the possibility of an event with little pomp or pizzazz as overseas spectators are set to be barred.

For the nation of 126 million, the Olympics were meant to showcase Japan's re-emergence from two decades of stagnation and remind the world of its clout as the third-biggest economy.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics were seen as touchstones that marked each country's emergence onto the global stage as rising powers.

In one portentous sign, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) early last month changed its Twitter banner photo to promote the 2022 Beijing Games.

Japanese media immediately seized on the change and fretted over what it meant even though the IOC has since changed the image back to the Tokyo event, saying it was done temporarily to mark the one-year countdown to the Winter Games.

"Japan is in a real bind here on this, no matter what they do," Leheny said. "It's not going to be the awesome return to international glory they were imagining when they were thinking this was going to be the next 1964."

The stakes are also high for China. Although the Winter Games carry less weight than their summer counterpart, a successful event will make Beijing the only city to have hosted both.

It will also provide a chance for China to improve its image after a year of being cast as the source of the virus.

The Beijing Games are also being clouded by reports of the Chinese government's persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority, which has been described as "genocide" by some countries.

Activist groups have begun calling for a boycott, and it remains to be seen whether other countries follow suit, most notably Canada.

Keen to build goodwill amid the negativity, China yesterday said it was ready to work with the IOC to help provide vaccines to Olympic athletes for upcoming events.

Wang Yi, the country's top diplomat, added vaccines will be made available to Olympians, but did not offer specifics.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2021, with the headline Beijing Games add pressure on Tokyo to hold Olympics. Subscribe