ADELAIDE, Australia—Australia announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, joining the U.S. in forgoing official representation at the coming event in the latest show of strained tensions between Australia and China.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said Australian government officials wouldn’t attend the Games, citing discord between the countries as well as China’s campaign of forcible assimilation against religious minorities in the country’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
“I’m doing it because it’s in Australia’s national interest; it’s the right thing to do, full stop,” said Mr. Morrison.
The Chinese Embassy in Canberra said the decision runs counter to Australia’s stated aim of improving relations between the two countries. They were frayed by Mr. Morrison’s call last year for an international investigation into the first outbreak of Covid-19, in central China.
Beijing saw it as meddling by a foreign government, heightening tensions following Australia’s ban on Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. from its next-generation 5G mobile network and a tightening of counterespionage safeguards to criminalize foreign meddling in domestic politics. China responded by imposing tariffs and other restrictions on Australian imports, including barley, beef and coal.
More recently, Australia joined with the U.S. and U.K. in creating a new security pact that aims to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. As part of that agreement, the U.S. said it would share technology to enable Australia to own a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
Mr. Morrison said the decision to boycott the Winter Olympics likely wouldn’t be a surprise, given the downturn in relations with China. He said Beijing had consistently refused to meet with Australia to discuss issues, including alleged human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Australian athletes would participate in the Games, he said.
On Monday, the White House said it wouldn’t send U.S. officials to the Games, due to begin in February, citing China’s alleged human-rights abuses. The U.S. diplomatic boycott, which won’t stop American athletes from participating in the Games, led Beijing to accuse it of grandstanding and threaten countermeasures.
New Zealand, another U.S. ally, said it wouldn’t send government ministers to the Games. At The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit on Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that decision was taken in October for reasons including border restrictions and Covid-19 concerns.
Some other countries haven’t settled on whether to join a diplomatic boycott. Japan “would like to make our own decision, based on our national interest,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said the human-rights situation in China would be a consideration.
Though Japan usually follows the U.S. lead on diplomatic matters, it tends to adopt a softer tone on human rights. Also, having hosted the Summer Olympics earlier this year, it is hesitant to use the Games to send a political message.
South Korea continues to hope that the Beijing Olympics contribute to world peace, prosperity and inter-Korean relations, a presidential Blue House official said Tuesday. Asked about the U.S. diplomatic boycott, the official didn’t give a direct answer on the Seoul government’s stance.
Within Australia, public opinion on China has soured. The population’s trust and confidence in China and its leaders started to decline in 2017, and reached a record low in 2021, according to the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney. A majority of 63% now view China as more of a security threat to Australia than as an economic partner, a 22-point increase from 2020, the institute said.
Almost half of the respondents to an annual Lowy poll, published in June, said Australia shouldn’t attend the Winter Olympics because of China’s alleged human-rights abuses.
Mr. Morrison said it would be unacceptable if Beijing retaliated economically or politically against Australia for its decision to join the U.S. in its stance regarding the Games. “There would be no grounds for that whatsoever,” he said.
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and buys most of its iron ore.
Activists have been stepping up calls against the Games for well over a year, targeting the International Olympic Committee, sponsors and Western governments with calls to cancel the Games.
In recent days, the debate within Australia centered on the potential magnitude of any snub, including whether it would keep all diplomats away from the Games and associated events or just Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher.
A diplomatic boycott is intended to send a message of disapproval without affecting athlete participation. The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee has repeatedly urged against full boycotts, after the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
The Australian Olympic Committee, which selects and funds Australian athletes for the Games, welcomed the Australian athletes’ participation. It expects to send roughly 40 athletes to compete.
The committee said it “respects the fact that diplomatic options are a matter for government and that politics and sport should be separated.”
Matt Carroll, chief executive of the committee, said: “Human rights are extremely important, but the considered view of diplomats is that keeping channels of communication open is far more impactful than shutting them down.”
—Peter Landers in Tokyo and Timothy Martin in Seoul contributed to this article.
Write to Rhiannon Hoyle at email@example.com
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