By early February, more than 2,870 athletes from 91 participating countries had arrived at the Olympic Village and other facilities in Beijing, while nearly 30 heads of state or senior officials and leaders of other international organizations were also planning to travel.
Guests who came along for the ride
According to the list announced by the Chinese Foreign Ministry for the first time on January 28, the outside world can find for the first time the 25 countries circled by Beijing.
The list includes Russia, Cambodia, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Poland, Serbia, Luxembourg, Monaco, Argentina, Ecuador, Mongolia, Pakistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Papua New Guinea, South Korea, Azerbaijan and Thailand. The leading figure is Russian President Vladimir Putin. This seems to mean that Beijing can still invite some influential countries to the event despite the “boycott” wave of European and American powers led by the United States.
But a closer look at the list quickly reveals something special about the list, because six countries – Cambodia, Singapore, Egypt, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Papua New Guinea – are not among the 91 countries participating in the Beijing Winter Olympics. However, the heads of these six countries are all the top heads of their respective countries who are going to Beijing. In this regard, the outside world can certainly explain this move by saying that the heads of these six countries are going to Beijing to attend “the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics and related activities”, but this kind of diplomatic action unrelated to the Winter Olympics is still noteworthy.
In terms of the specific distribution of these six countries, the outside world can find several directions of Beijing’s diplomacy, first of all, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is still the traditional diplomatic direction of Beijing. As Cambodia has become the chair of ASEAN in 2022 and Singapore is the economic center of the ASEAN region after the establishment of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the relationship between these two countries, plus Thailand and Beijing, has been brought closer.
Secondly, Arab countries have also become the key point of Beijing’s recent strategy. In fact, from January 10, the Middle East powers suddenly took intensive diplomatic actions with Beijing: the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, as well as the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), visited China collectively. This was followed by visits to China by the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran between 12 and 14 days. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also held a telephone meeting with Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates, on the 13th. In a short period of time, Beijing and the Middle East powers have quickly exchanged notes and made agreements with each other, which seems to indicate the confidence of the Middle East powers in Beijing.
Furthermore, China has also shown more than usual interest in Oceania, especially the South Pacific region, which is part of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative centered around Papua New Guinea and moving toward Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga. This part of the operation focuses on poverty alleviation and training for agricultural demonstration projects, with Papua New Guinea being the center of China’s efforts to promote not only edible mushrooms and other agricultural technologies in the direction of Oceania, but also the recent promotion of the new crown vaccine. In late January, Beijing even sent two transport planes, the Yun-20, to deliver emergency supplies to Tonga within 72 hours.
Unexpected Absence of North Korea
In contrast to the list of 25 countries that Beijing plans to list on February 4, the absence of another country is also saddening, and that absence is North Korea.
The reason for North Korea’s absence from the Beijing Winter Games was certainly related to the IOC’s almost “absolute” punitive treatment, as the North Korean delegation was absent from the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 despite the IOC’s “promise to the DPRK Olympic Committee to host the Games safely” and “with a serious warning”. As a result, the IOC suspended the DPRK Olympic Committee until 2022 on the grounds that “North Korea has violated the Olympic Charter and has not fulfilled its participation obligations under the Olympic Charter”. Therefore, despite Pyongyang’s support for the Beijing Olympics, Pyongyang is no longer able to send members.
Of course, the countries going to Beijing do not necessarily have to be Winter Olympics participants, as six of the 25 countries confirmed to attend the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics did not have athletes there: after all, there are always other international events to attend in Beijing, and for Pyongyang, its intentional avoidance of Beijing may be useful in another way: to avoid falling into Seoul’s atmosphere of creating a “Winter Olympics final battle” in the diplomatic arena, and to further preserve Pyongyang’s dominant position in the diplomatic arena.
Since late November 2021, Seoul has been releasing a smokescreen of “plans to use the Beijing Winter Olympics as an opportunity to issue a declaration on the end of the war”. Considering that the Chinese ambassador to Korea at the time had made a statement that “China is open to this”, and that by December 2021, the South Korean side had even released the news that “the U.S., China and North Korea have agreed in principle to formally declare the end of the war in Korea”, Seoul is still in a mood of expecting a miracle to send North Korean personnel to the Beijing Winter Olympics.
There is no denying that there has been a near miraculous diplomatic breakthrough on the peninsula before, when former US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and since then, Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have met several times. But the international situation in 2021 is not what it used to be, and with the establishment of the Joe Biden administration, the US and South Korea are becoming increasingly conservative towards North Korea, and by December 2021, the Biden administration will even begin to impose sanctions on North Korea, making it difficult for Pyongyang to get its act together. At this point, the options left to Pyongyang may be simple: while the channels of contact between the North and the South are not blocked, the North Koreans are afraid to wait until the change of authorities in Seoul on March 9, 2022 before taking further action, and until then, Pyongyang’s absence from the Winter Olympics has left another unexpected sight in China’s circle of friends.