China, Taiwan, ROK limber up for Olympic diplomacy in Tokyo

TAIPEI/BEIJING — As the curtain rises on the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on Friday, Taiwan digital minister Audrey Tang will be among those in attendance. The decision by the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen to dispatch a minister not directly involved in the Games comes as an unusual one for Taiwan and all eyes will be on China’s reaction to the choice.

Despite being drastically scaled down due to the coronavirus crisis, this year’s ceremony is already shaping up to be another arena for “Olympic diplomacy,” the diplomatic maneuvers that play out on the sidelines of the Games by participating countries and regions.

Tsai took to social media to trumpet Tang as “the best choice” to represent Taiwan at the Games.

The Olympics are a rare opportunity for Taiwan to send its ministers to countries with which it has no official diplomatic relations, as China has taken a position that denies any such official exchange between Taiwan and other countries.

Although Tang is a cabinet minister, she is not among those China has branded as being a “Taiwan independence element.” Taiwan’s administration expects Tang will receive a favorable reception — preceded by her reputation as the “IT genius minister” for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — leading to a further strengthening of Japan-Taiwan relations.

China has yet to officially respond to Tang’s selection. The silence ostensibly speaks in part to Beijing’s avowed stance of separating sports and politics, amid international calls for a boycott of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

According to sources in the Chinese Communist Party, the administration of President Xi Jinping is leaning toward sending vice premier Sun Chunlan, an official in charge of sports, as its own senior official at the Games.

In 2016, then vice premier Liu Yandong, Sun’s hierarchical equal, was dispatched to attend the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was attended by Han Zheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, which constitutes the party’s highest leadership echelon.

Some Japanese government officials have speculated that China may forgo sending any high-ranking officials to Japan altogether, as a show of Beijing’s thoughts on the heightened cooperation between Japan and the United States over issues related to Taiwan.

As Tokyo has been placed under another state of emergency, China is expected to make their final personnel decision while taking into account the status of COVID-19 infections.

In addition to Tang, U.S. first lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country will host the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics, have both RSVP’d for the opening ceremony.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is also considering attending, in the interest of improving bilateral relations with Japan. Moon is seen as hoping to repeat successes of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong’s presence at the opening ceremony helped foster dialogue across the peninsula, as well as between the United States and North Korea.

However, sources familiar with Japan-South Korea relations say that if President Moon fails to make progress in Olympic diplomacy in Tokyo, criticism against him at home could intensify.

For this reason, the Moon administration is believed to still be engaged in careful final negotiations with Japanese officials and other parties, over whether to attend the opening ceremony.