Foreign Affairs March 2006

Dangerous Games

The most heated competition in the 2008 Olympics could take place not in a stadium but in the Taiwan Strait

Since the ancient competitions at Olympia, the Olympic Games have transcended national rivalries and celebrated universal human achievement. Yet throughout modern history the Olympics have also been mired in power politics, international tension, and even violence. In the games following both world wars the defeated nations were prohibited from competing. Nazi Germany used the 1936 games in Berlin to showcase its dramatic resurgence and to intimidate its neighbors with images of German power and unity. South Africa was banned from the games from 1964 to 1992 because of its apartheid laws. And in 1972 the Olympics became a battlefield in the Arab-Israeli conflict when Palestinian terrorists killed eleven Israeli athletes in a hostage crisis. Politics saturated the Olympics throughout the Cold War: the United States led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviets organized a retaliatory boycott of the Los Angeles games four years later.

The 2008 Olympics, the first ever to be held in China, will be a similar exercise in politics by other means, starting with a battle for prestige: after the Americans dominated at the Athens games in 2004, China and Russia agreed to cooperate to best America in Beijing. The official Chinese goal is to win 110 medals—seven more than the United States won in Athens. To this end China and Russia will exchange coaches and share training methods and facilities. (Chinese Olympic organizers have promised that in return for Moscow’s assistance they will instruct Chinese fans to cheer for Russian athletes at any event in which no Chinese athlete is competing.) In 2004 China’s sports minister, Yuan Weimin, told U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Peter Ueberroth before the Athens games, “Don’t worry—we will not topple you. But we are making this effort.”

What may turn out to be of far greater concern than medal counts, however, is the possibility of war—specifically, between China and Taiwan. Why? Because Taiwanese leaders may gamble that the 2008 Olympics will provide them with their best chance to declare formal independence from the mainland. With the world’s spotlight trained on Beijing, they may reason, China might not attack, as it has vowed to do in the event of such a declaration. After all, military conflict would jeopardize the games and create an international embarrassment for China. Moreover, it would drive investors away and possibly lead to economic sanctions that would damage China’s flourishing economy. The danger, of course, is that Taiwan will act and Beijing will carry out its threat despite the costs.

The 2008 Olympics will not be the first to highlight the rivalry between Taiwan and China. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949, the International Olympic Committee authorized Taiwan’s Olympic committee to represent China—meaning that “Chinese” athletes were actually Taiwanese. When the PRC gained the Chinese seat at the United Nations, in 1971, the IOC subsequently recognized Beijing’s Olympic committee; since then athletes from mainland China have represented the nation at the Olympics. (The IOC later worked out a deal with Taipei that allowed Taiwanese athletes to compete, but only as part of the “Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee.” The team is prohibited from using its national symbols; its athletes don’t carry Taiwan’s flag or hear their national anthem when they win medals.)

Taiwan nationalists recognize that the Chinese have a lot at stake in the games. Just as Japan and South Korea (hosts in 1964 and 1988, respectively) viewed their Olympics as emblematic of their national achievement, so Beijing sees the 2008 games as an opportunity to demonstrate that it has moved emphatically beyond developing-country status into the ranks of the world’s greatest nations. China’s aggressive quest for a higher medal total reveals how much importance the country puts on the Olympics. (Taipei, meanwhile, is considering the idea of hosting a future Olympics. Premier Frank Hsieh has proposed a campaign to host the 2020 games, arguing that it would boost global recognition of Taiwan. Advocates also argue that hosting the Olympics would bolster Taiwanese security, because Beijing would not dare attack the island in the preceding years.)

All this helps explain why Taiwanese nationalists—including both President Chen Shui-bian and former President Lee Teng-hui—might see the Beijing games as an opportunity. But would they really be so bold (some would say foolhardy) as to declare independence? And are they right to think that China would refrain from attack? The most likely answers to those questions are “maybe” and “no,” respectively—which raises the discomfiting prospect that unless cooler heads in Taiwan can prevail, China and Taiwan may be headed for a cross-strait war.

Presented by

Jennifer Lind is a research fellow at the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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