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How the Olympics Could Spur War with China

Just as many hope things are letting up, a perilous schedule of events is on the calendar.

A lot can change in a year and a half. 

In December 2019, I had dinner with Jimmy Lai, the billionaire founder of Apple Daily, a popular broadsheet in Hong Kong. One of the perks of my profession, I have had occasion to dine with a life’s share of political celebrities. But you never forget a meal with a man who could buy you hundreds of thousands of times over wearing dread for the future so plainly on his face.

As it turned out, Mr. Lai was simply ahead of the curve. 

The next 90 days would see the reality of COVID-19, which was certainly already live in Asia when I saw him, transform from regional nuisance into international calamity. Travelers coming from the region would still joke about their coughs in journo salons in Washington and New York. 

“This is not a major threat to the people of the United States,” Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told Greg Kelly. “The American people should not be worried or frightened by this. It’s a very, very low risk to the United States,” he told John Castimidis.

No one knew what was coming.  

But as we all now know, the dawn of a new decade was to be a disaster. In the intervening 19 months, Mr. Lai did not, like so many others, lose his life, but he did lose his liberty, and his company. Apple Daily may not be a household name in the States, but it is in Hong Kong, where Lai now sits in prison at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.

Concerns about the new Delta variant aside, a new consensus has crept in: We’ve all seen the worst of it, at least for a while. The global economy is poised for a roaring comeback after a year of shuttered people and shuttered demand. And if U.S. politics is, indeed, reaching a boiling point, or even a return for Donald Trump, then at least such concerns are at abeyance until the 2024 cycle. President Joe Biden is fine, and we are, indeed, entering a new era of normalcy.

So goes the consensus. 

But witness that ultimate sign of normalcy: the Olympics. Rescheduled for next month in Japan, things are not going well. The country’s relatively low vaccination rate is a problem: 8 percent if you believe the World Health Organization (I don’t, really). As Delta rears its ugly head, a Northeast Asian country that managed the sudden pandemic as well as any major economy in the world last year has been caught suddenly flatfooted at showtime. 

“The Japanese ministry elites advised [Prime Minister Yoshihide] Suga and his government to cancel the Olympics,” a former Department of Defense senior advisor under President Donald J. Trump insisted to me. “The Japanese electorate—reeling in shock from COVID—opposed holding the Olympics in Japan this year. As a result, Suga and his party are in trouble.” 

Back stateside, Wall Street had its worst day since May on Monday.  

How Suga grapples with this is not merely his own business. Nearby, the elite in Beijing is watching closely. Concerns abound that if attendance for the Winter Games in February, to be held in Beijing and Hebei, is paltry, or even if it were a matter of few Western leaders showing up, it could trigger a redux of the 2014 Sochi disaster in Russia. Elite snubs of those Games likely presaged Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea. The concern, this go around, would be centered on Taiwan, sometimes called “the most dangerous place on Earth.” 

“The risk of a Chinese invasion—India, Taiwan, Japan, whatever—increases after the Beijing Olympics next year,” said Gordon Chang, a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute. “The fear of a boycott of the February’s Games, it appears, is one of the few things keeping Xi Jinping in check at the moment. This, of course, is not to say he won’t do something awful before then as he calculates his interests and views the world differently than the rest of us.” 

Republican pressure on President Biden is likely to mount ahead of next February, especially as Republicans try to link a leftward drift at home with the specter of international communism emanating from China. 

Widespread boycott support among GOP officials is not unthinkable. Biden seeks to turn America into a “secular welfare state,” former Vice President Mike Pence said in Iowa over the weekend. A former senior Trump administration official told me over the weekend that the only way for Biden to fight this impression would be to all but back regime change in Cuba, a defeat for autocracy and a victory for U.S.-style democracy, this official argued.

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And after all that? All bets are off, especially if the Beijing Games go poorly. But Bradley Thayer of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the hawkish Committee for the President Danger urges caution. “I do not believe that a poor elite showing causes an invasion,” Thayer told me. “Xi very well may invade Taiwan, but will do so for strategic and/or domestic reasons, not as a result of a poor elite showing at the Olympics.” 

Thayer caveats, however: “If the cause of the poor representation is as a protest over China’s treatment over Muslims in Xinjiang or its other myriad human rights violations, that would be more damaging to Xi’s position. … If there is a poor elite presence, the irony is that China is responsible for it as they are culpable for the creation and release of the virus and due to their massive human rights violations.”

The government may be autocratic, and Xi Jinping a strongman who has purged most of his rivals, but the Chinese president has to at least go through the motions next year of ratifying his third term in power. Xi will be the most powerful general secretary of the Communist Party since the People’s Republic’s founder, Mao Zedong, and the nakedly dynastic turn in the commanding heights is plain to all—old rivals liquidated or not. But no one is more aware of the precarity of his position, and the wild turns life can take, than Xi. As a teenager, the Red Guards that imprisoned members of his family during the Cultural Revolution told Xi: “We can execute you a hundred times.” Leaders in Washington may run an empire, but the adjacency of Chinese leaders to violence in their own lives can not be understated, especially in assessing the psyche in Beijing. 

Things could get dicey in a hurry. 

CNN reported over the weekend on the status of Biden’s presidential review on the origins of COVID-19. “Senior Biden administration officials overseeing an intelligence review into the origins of the coronavirus now believe the theory that the virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan is at least as credible as the possibility that it emerged naturally in the wild,” the left-leaning major outlet starkly reported. 

“Lab leak,” or even more outre conjecture (intentionality), is no longer simply the province of the right. Almost any Republican replacement of Biden is likely to be more hawkish on China. And the pressure that’s relevant on the administration is all one way: confrontation.  

“Donald Trump had a grand total of two semi-competent policies,” Robert Kuttner, the founder of the American Prospect and a liberal sometime-interlocutor of Steve Bannon said Monday. “One was throwing a lot of money at vaccine makers. The other was taking a harder line with China. Both policies left a lot to be desired in their details, but they were directionally correct.” 

Kuttner took Biden’s Treasury secretary to task, saying recent comments castigating Trump’s trade policy ​​were a view of China policy” that were “an alarming throwback to naive globalism.”

Meanwhile, where big business is willing to break quite publicly with the Democratic Party, it’s also on China, with biotechnology and pharmaceutical interest groups taking out ads against the administration’s recent vaccine patent waivers. Notably, it’s nearly impossible to get through the Fox News primetime lineup these days without seeing one. 

So, here’s saying enjoy the summer while you can.