China Goes on Charm Offensive at Asian Games, but Doesn’t Back Down from Regional Confrontations

AP Photo/Aaron Favila
Chinese volunteers stand at a shuttle bus hub at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023.

HANGZHOU, China (AP) — A month before the Asian Games, China released a new national map, doubling down on its claims to almost the entire South China Sea and disputed border territories with India.

A few days before the event, it flew more than 100 warplanes toward Taiwan, stepping up its regular military harassment of the self-governing democratic island that Beijing claims for its own.

At the games themselves, however, outward aggression has taken a backseat to unctuous charm as China sought to win the hearts of more than 40 Asian nations and regions by dazzling them with technology and slathering them with praise.

In a personal appearance in the eastern city of Hangzhou, into which the government poured billions of dollars for the two-week games, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed leaders and officials at an opening banquet on Saturday.

“The Asian Games embodies the Asian people’s shared desire for peace, unity and inclusiveness,” Xi told them, according to his prepared remarks.

No mention was made of the status of Taiwan, the tense standoffs in the South China Sea over competing claims with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines – all competitors at the Hangzhou games – or the border disputes with India that resulted in a clash three years ago in which 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed.

Nor was anything said about a diplomatic spat China ignited with India the day before Saturday’s opening ceremony as it refused to back down on its stance on visas for Indian athletes coming from a region that leaders maintain belongs to China, resulting in three women wushu athletes being unable to compete.

Taiwan’s athletes even received one of the loudest rounds of applause at the opening ceremony, though have to compete under the name “Chinese Taipei” and without their flag due to China’s claim on the island off of its east coast, which it has not ruled out taking by force.

Signs around Hangzhou billed the city as a “paradise on earth” while China adopted the motto “heart to heart” for the Asian Games, which feature some 12,000 competitors – more than the summer Olympics – from across Asia and the Middle East.

“This will undoubtedly open new prospects for cultural exchanges, cultural integration and people-to-people bonds in Asia,” the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily wrote Monday in an effusive editorial about the Hangzhou games. “It will inject profound and lasting cultural strength into the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.”

The headlines the state-run China Daily’s supplement edition for the games carried after the opening ceremony included “Xi extends hand of friendship,” and “Wave of Glory” alongside a photo of the Chinese leader waving to the crowds.

Xi told the officials at Saturday’s banquet that the region’s recent economic growth had been an “Asian miracle” and that “we should make Asia an anchor of world peace.”

But while offering a verbal carrot in Hangzhou, Beijing continued brandishing a physical stick elsewhere. Taiwan’s military said Sunday it had detected the Chinese military initiating an exercise featuring warplanes, ships and ground troops in coastal Fujian Province, which faces Taiwan.

The Philippine coast guard reported over the weekend that it had detected a floating barrier placed by China’s coast guard to prevent Filipino fishing boats from entering a lagoon in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

The Philippines removed the barrier on Monday. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters Tuesday that China’s “resolve to safeguard its sovereignty and maritime rights” was unwavering, and he warned “the Philippines not to make provocations or seek trouble.”

Xi’s banquet speech did not refer to any territorial claims or confrontations, nor to the mounting tensions with the U.S. and its allies as Beijing and Washington jockey for influence in the Asia-Pacific region

Still, geopolitics were clearly not far from his Xi’s mind as he outlined China’s goals, thinly veiling his remarks with the language of sport.

“As a community with a shared future connected by mountains and rivers as well as cultural affinity, we should use sports to promote peace, pursue good neighborliness and mutual benefit, and reject Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation,” he said, using language China commonly does when referring to the U.S.’s Asia-Pacific strategy.

“As humanity faces unprecedented global challenges, we should use sports to promote unity, seize the historic opportunity, and jointly stand up to the challenges,” Xi said.