James Allan

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The Beijing Winter Olympics and Geopolitics: the Games provide a physical representation of the strategic challenges facing Britain today

Feb 16, 2022

 

When discussing geopolitics sporting events rarely feature in conversation. There are a litany of historic occasions when politics collided with sports on the world stage. More often than not, these momentous occasions are written up in the history books as a force for good. Whether it’s the legendary 1914 Christmas Truce football match in No Man’s Land between opposing German and British troops or since 2016 the Refugee Olympic Team enabling 68.5 million displaced people to be represented by a team competing in the games, international sporting events serve as a reminder of the world’s humanity. Sport has the ability to transcend divisions among nations. International sporting events afford at least a temporary opportunity for countries to put aside their differences, or move on from a troubled history, and engage in a healthy form of competition between world-class athletes representing their nations.

Conversely, world sporting events can serve as a stark reminder of the sorry state of world affairs. During the 20th Century in the run up to the 1936 Nazi Olympics, Avery Brundage, US Olympic Committee President, argued that “politics has no place in sport”. Despite attempts to boycott the games, the 1936 Olympics went ahead with concessions by Hitler to allow Jewish and Black athletes to participate. Hitler’s racist beliefs were repudiated when African American Jesse Owens won four gold medals in field and track events. More than this, Owens single-handedly and seismically exposed Hitler’s Aryan myth by triumphing over German and Nordic athletes and establishing new Olympic and world records on multiple occasions.

Sport has proved it can be both a force for good and a stark reminder of the sorry state of international affairs. Sadly, another world sporting event has joined the latter category. The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics kicked off with an opening ceremony jointly attended by Vladmir Putin and Xi Jinping. As the 1936 Olympics illustrated, hosting world sporting events offers an opportunity for dictators to control and manipulate how outsiders view their country. However, other world leaders have been notably absent in Beijing this year due to a diplomatic boycott — dealing a blow to Xi Jinping’s desire for credibility and acceptance. Nonetheless, two of the world’s most powerful autocrats enjoyed each other’s company, at times appearing to revel in the absence of other world leaders as the Chinese Communist Party used the opportunity to display its alternative geopolitical vision.

Prior to the opening ceremony, Putin and Xi Jinping published a joint statement that reads like a catalogue of common interests and positions as a basis for greater Chinese-Russian cooperation. The list covers cultural and humanitarian concerns, international human rights, sustainable development of the Arctic region, poverty reduction, food security, vaccines and epidemics control, climate change, sustainable development, the Belt and Road Initiative… the list goes on. The problem with the statement is less its individual points, but rather the signal it sends internationally about the defining dynamics of the next decades. The two leaders’ proclaimed commitments to ‘human rights’ are egregious given their respective records.

The Beijing Winter Olympics have provided a sporting representation of the strategic competition facing us today. Policy Exchange was one of the first to draw attention to this  particular concept of a ‘strategic competition’ that has begun to define Britain’s long-term foreign policy planning. Our paper, Making Global Britain Work put forward eight recommendations for revitalising UK foreign policy for the post-Brexit age. One of them was a call for an updated UK China policy to reflect the new paradigm of heightened US-China great power competition. Our subsequent landmark report, A Very British Tilt, made a case for a shift toward the Indo-Pacific Region taking into account the new possibilities for strategic balance and the imperative of prudent diplomacy. The Government’s 2021 Integrated Review adopted Policy Exchange’s recommendations almost entirely, in its ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ framework.

In an age of strategic competition between the US and China, the UK’s role is nuanced. A new Cold War is not desirable – nor, perhaps, possible – but defending UK interests at home and abroad with clarity and firmness is ever more important. The UK cannot be value-neutral between Beijing and Washington, but should defend global cooperation, openness, respect for law, and adherence to accepted norms of behaviour in concert with the US and other like-minded nations, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Within this context, despite the unsatisfactory state of affairs that China’s Winter Olympics illustrates, sport has once again proved useful in decoding in a different language some of the  international dynamics that will define the decades to come. 

James Allan

Research Fellow Read Full Bio

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