Sino-Japanese Review

The Sino-Japanese Olympic Competition for Status

Welcome to instalment XXVII (March 2021) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective.

The global coronavirus pandemic is neither defeated nor contained, but Tokyo is determined to hold the Olympic Games this summer as planned after last year’s postponement.  Preparations are moving forward despite concerns expressed by athletes, coaches, and the public and notwithstanding the unavoidable decision to ban overseas spectators. The desire to recoup as much as possible from the significant sums already invested in the event surely figures prominently in Tokyo’s calculations, but so do questions of diplomatic prestige between China and Japan.

Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics only six months after the Tokyo Games conclude. This could be seen as an occasion for collaboration and celebration that Northeast Asia will become the sporting center of the world for the next twelve months. Both Japan and China have pledged to use the Games to promote people-to-people exchanges and this is now an obvious challenge. At a press conference last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi nevertheless encouraged the two sides to “support each other” and to “deepen friendship” through the Games. An optimist could therefore take China’s recent vaccine offer to all athletes competing in Tokyo this year and in Beijing in 2022 as a goodwill gesture intended to give concrete shape to calls for cooperation.

An optimist could take China’s recent vaccine offer to all athletes as a goodwill gesture intended to give concrete shape to calls for cooperation

Considering the atmosphere of deep strategic mistrust currently prevailing between China and Japan, the Olympics are however more likely to be seen as yet another domain of competition. Tokyo’s reaction to the Chinese offer of vaccines was less than enthusiastic. This is not only due to the absence of clinical data for Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines and ongoing uncertainty around Japan’s own Covid-19 prevention measures, but also the mistrust surrounding China’s vaccine diplomacy. China is using its success in containing the spread of Covid-19 and its ability to provide vaccines to the rest of the world to demonstrate its strength and to boost its status as this century’s emerging superpower. Japan, meanwhile, faces criticism for failing to contain the virus and for its slow vaccine rollout even as the Games draw near. Tokyo’s preparations for the Games have also been plagued with scandals, overspending, and delays. It is something of a nightmare scenario for Tokyo to see such circumstances overshadow its moment in the spotlight while China presents itself as the savior of the Olympic Games.

It’s a nightmare scenario for Tokyo to see such scandals overshadow its moment in the spotlight while China presents itself as the savior of the Olympic Games

It is worth noting that the Olympics have always been a particularly propitious occasion used to boost a country’s international status. The way in which the Chinese Communist Party sought to use the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics as a “coming out” party for a rising and newly confident China is widely acknowledged. Japan’s own history with the Olympic Games goes much further back. The cancelled 1940 Olympics had aimed to improve the country’s image amidst rising international tensions over its imperial expansionism in Asia. The 1964 Olympics, the first held in Asia and telecasted internationally, became a landmark occasion to showcase Japan’s resurgence and its technological and industrial development.

The 2020 Olympics were meant to demonstrate Japan’s resilience and recovery ten years after the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami and to display its maturity, peacefulness and prosperity. The prominent political scientist Michishita Narushige has argued that the Games remain an important opportunity to show the world, and China in particular, the appeal of Japan’s development path as democratic and gentle. On the other hand, if the Tokyo Olympics were to be cancelled while the Beijing Winter Olympics goes ahead, this runs the risk of feeding into the narrative of Chinese ascendency and Japan’s decline as well as further encouraging Chinese “adventurism”. 

The Chinese Communist Party faces its own challenges for hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics such as threats of boycott over the human rights abuses against the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang. It will most likely be unable to keep the Beijing Games free of controversy and to present them as an unmitigated triumph for its model of governance. Still, the reluctance to hand a victory to China surely plays some part in Japan’s determination to pull off this year’s Olympics on their own and as successfully as possible.

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Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international affairs. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and a MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has previously worked at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and has been a visiting student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

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Andrea A. Fischetti is a government scholar conducting research on Asia-Pacific Affairs and East Asian Security at the University of Tokyo and at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, and a research assistant at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Mr. Fischetti earned his MA in War Studies from King’s College London, following a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies.

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