Sports Diplomacy Burnishes China's International Image

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russia's Black Sea city of Sochi on February 6-8 for the opening ceremony of the 22nd Winter Olympic Games at the invitation of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. It was the first time China's head of state attended a major international sporting event overseas. Interviewees from across the world told People's Daily that the visit was a highlight of China-Russia relations that provided important proof of their close ties.

Prioritizing bilateral relations

M.L. Titarenko, Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Xi's attendance of the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics showed China's support for the Olympic movement and Russia's hosting of the Games. The Chinese president chose Russia as the first leg of his maiden foreign trip after taking office in March last year. The two visits demonstrated the great importance Xi attaches to China-Russia relations, Titarenko said. Moreover, he believes Xi's presence at the Winter Olympics not only helped enhance personal relations between the two countries' leaders but also was an important step in expanding non-governmental exchanges and cementing bilateral bonds through sports diplomacy.

Taras Ivchenko, Russian Dean of the Confucius Institute at the Russian State University for the Humanities, worked as a Chinese interpreter for the Russian Winter Olympic team. Ivchenko has long been committed to Chinese studies and is keenly interested in the development of China's sports sector. He pointed out that sports, from Ping-Pong diplomacy decades ago to the Olympics diplomacy of today, have played a pivotal role in promoting China's exchanges with the rest of the world. The 2008 Beijing Olympics was a milestone in the history of Chinese sports and diplomacy, Ivchenko said. While showcasing the rapid development of sports in China, the event gave the world a picture of China's remarkable political, economic and social progress. Ivchenko noted that as sports fans, Xi and Putin must have had much more in common at their most recent meeting, which helped consolidate the foundations for the deepening of bilateral relations.

Another researcher of Chinese studies with the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is also a master of Chinese martial arts, said wushu has gained popularity in Russia since the 1990s. During the Year of China in Russia in 2007, a drama titled The Legend of Kung-fu enthralled Russian viewers and wushu fans with the unique charm of kung-fu. Wushu training classes and clubs have since sprouted up across Russia. The researcher believes that wushu has increasingly become an essential bridge for sports and cultural exchanges between China and Russia, promoting communication between Chinese and Russian sports professionals and creating a success story in bilateral non-governmental relations in recent years.

Highlighting mutual accord

The fact that Xi visited Russia during his first trip abroad as China's president and attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics shows that he cherishes the traditional friendship between China and Russia, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Reports of terrorist attacks in Russia before the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics prompted Western countries to question Russia's ability to ensure the safety of the event. Under such circumstances, Xi insisted on attending its opening ceremony, a choice that illustrated his firm determination and readiness to develop friendly relations between China and Russia.

An editorial of The World Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper in Thailand, pointed out that it was obvious that the United States and West European countries deliberately cast doubts over the Sochi Winter Olympics. In contrast to the West's indifference, Xi's trip to Sochi–his first trip to a Winter Olympic event–warmed up the winter as a public display of support for Putin, the newspaper said.

Russia made extensive preparations for the Winter Olympics, which provided an important opportunity for the country to present its major power status to the world, said Paulo Wrobel, a researcher with the Rio de Janeiro-based BRICS Policy Center. The Sochi Winter Olympics was the first major international sporting event Xi has attended abroad. For the second consecutive year, Xi chose Russia as his first overseas destination at the beginning of a year. These facts are evidence that China and Russia enjoy close ties and are highly in agreement on issues of major concern to each other, Wrobel added.

Since China's head of state rarely attends sporting events overseas, Xi's attendance of the Sochi Winter Olympics was a positive step taken by China diplomatically, said Cheng Li, Director of Research at the John L. Thornton China Center at the U.S. think tank Brookings Institution. Given China's close cooperation with Russia in areas such as energy, antiterrorism and economy for geopolitical reasons, coupled with Xi's passion for sports, the Russians would warmly welcome and positively comment on his Sochi visit, Li said.

Fostering a peaceful image

Moses Chikane, Honorary President of the China-South Africa Sports and Culture Exchange Association, said Xi's attendance of the Sochi Winter Olympics showed the Chinese Government highly values sports diplomacy. In recent years, China's achievements in this regard have been widely recognized in the international community, as an increasing number of top-notch athletes promote China's image by taking part in international competitions. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, in particular, made China better known to other nations and bolstered their friendship with the Chinese.

The Sochi Winter Olympics opened at an auspicious time shortly after the traditional Chinese Spring Festival marking the beginning of the Year of the Horse, said Wang Xian'en, President of the All-Japan Federation of Overseas Chinese Professionals. Sporting events have always been good opportunities for a country to demonstrate its comprehensive power and make more friends. In the 1970s, Ping-Pong diplomacy helped break China's diplomatic impasse and promote the rapprochement between China and the United States. The Chinese president's attendance of the Sochi Winter Olympics in February this year was testament to the growing confidence of the Chinese leadership. Wang said he believed the visit would convey the message of China's peaceful development to the world while fostering its image of a major power that undertakes moral obligations, loves peace and treats friends well.

History shows sports diplomacy is an integral part of a country's overall diplomatic strategy, said Augusto Soto, a professor with Spain's ESADE Business School who also leads the Dialogue with China Project. China's diplomatic initiatives are world-renowned, with Ping-Pong diplomacy and the 2008 Beijing Olympics being the most representative, Soto said. While the former injected impetus to China-U.S. official relations and non-governmental contacts in the 1970s, the latter played a crucial role in bolstering China's image as a major power, he added.

A professor with the University of Bamako in Mali told People's Daily that sports diplomacy has contributed greatly to China-Africa relations. Sports venues and facilities built with China's assistance are common sights in African countries such as Mali, he said, adding that they are still deemed as important symbols of the China-Africa friendship.

An editorial of South Korean newspaper Joongang Daily said the fact that Xi attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics while U.S. and European leaders were absent showed China gave priority to relations with neighboring countries.

South Korean newspaper Kukmin Daily reported that Xi's presence at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics as well as the frequent exchanges of visits by Chinese and Russian presidents are an indication that the two countries have forged an unprecedentedly close relationship. An international affairs column in Kyunghyang Shinmun, another South Korean newspaper, said that China's new leadership has realized that the great renaissance of the Chinese nation will not materialize unless it maintains friendly relations with its neighbors. Xi's attendance of the Sochi Winter Olympics as China's head of state was a concrete example showing that China sees great value in neighborhood diplomacy.

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