India has joined allies like the US and Australia in diplomatically boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics. Image: Screengrab / WION

JAIPUR – India has abruptly opted against sending its top envoy to Beijing for the Winter Olympics after China announced it had designated a soldier wounded in a deadly border clash with India in 2020 as a torchbearer at the opening ceremony.

The move puts India in line with the US, Australia, Canada and Britain as nations that have diplomatically boycotted the Games over Beijing’s human rights record, while still allowing their athletes to compete. It comes after India had joined Russia in expressing support for the Beijing Games during the BRICS summit in November.

But that all changed when Colonel Qi Fabao, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) regimental commander who was seriously wounded in the 2020 clash between Indian and Chinese troops, was pictured by China’s state-owned Global Times on Wednesday jogging while holding the torch, drawing criticism from India’s former diplomats and defense experts.

India’s official wire agency ANI quoted an Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson as saying, “Regrettable that China has chosen to politicize the Olympics. The Indian envoy will not attend the opening or closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics.”

Beijing did not immediately respond to the announcement.

India’s sole athlete at the Games, Arif Khan, a skier from Indian-controlled Kashmir, will still reportedly take part in the opening ceremony. But India’s public broadcaster, Doordarshan, announced on late Thursday evening that it would not broadcast the Games’ opening or closing ceremonies.

People’s Liberation Army Colonel Qi Fabao prepares for to carry the torch at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Image: CNN / Screengrab

The Himalayan confrontation, where rival troops fought with rocks, clubs and their fists in hand-to-hand combat in Galwan Valley along the undemarcated border in Ladakh, was the deadliest clash in decades between the two Asian giants. At least 20 Indian troops and four Chinese soldiers were killed in the melee.

The two sides have since been locked in a high-altitude standoff involving tens of thousands of troops backed by heavy artillery that has dramatically altered an already fraught relationship between the nuclear-armed neighbors. Tensions have remained high since June 2020 despite a series of talks at military, diplomatic and political levels.

Indian commentators have been less than diplomatic in their response to Beijing’s decision to hand Colonel Qi the ceremonial torch.

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic thinker, author and popular commentator, tweeted today, “What does it say about India’s approach that it first endorsed the 2022 Winter Olympics (dubbed “Genocide Games”) and only at the last minute announced a boycott of the Olympics’ ceremonies after China delivered a real kick in the teeth by feting a “killer” PLA officer as a hero?”   

Chellaney had earlier tweeted, “By picking a local PLA commander involved in the 2020 bloody clashes with India as a torchbearer at the Beijing Winter Olympics, China has done what it accuses the West of doing—mixing politics and sports. The fact is that China has long treated sports as politics by other means.”

He wrote, “Here’s the paradox: China is presenting that PLA commander as a hero when it has still not disclosed its death toll in those clashes, other than belatedly honouring four slain soldiers and one wounded officer. But it has jailed 6 Chinese bloggers for criticizing the toll cover-up.”

China’s state-run Global Times fired back in an article titled “Chellaney and the like are turning India into second Australia on an anti-China path”, a comparison that carried a complicit threat of trade sanctions on India, significantly at a time bilateral trade is booming.  

Two-way trade reached US$114 billion for the eleven-month period through November 2021, representing a 46.4% year-on-year rise over 2020, according to official Chinese customs data.

Trade has accelerated despite a #BoycottChineseProducts campaign that started trending online after the June 2020 border clashes now at the center of renewed diplomatic controversy. At the time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government retaliated by banning more than 260 Chinese apps, including TikTok, Shien and CamScanner.

An Indian wears a facemask as he pays tribute along with others to the soldiers who lost their lives following a clash between India and China, in Hyderabad on June 17, 2020. Photo: AFP

Even so, Chellaney and others have been broadly critical of how the Indian government has handled its China diplomacy, which they perceive the Modi government has soft-pedaled.

Before the Olympic diplomatic boycott, Chellaney said, “At a time when China has conducted nuclear warfare drills in Tibet while engaged in border aggression, how does the Modi government explain extending support to the Beijing Winter Olympics … and allowing space agency ISRO to tie up commercially with Oppo?”

That tweet came amid news of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) space agency entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Chinese smartphone maker OPPO’s Indian subsidiary, OPPO India, to exchange technical information related to NavIC messaging services.

The announcement set off a firestorm of criticism that Prime Minister Modi’s government was giving an adversary access to sensitive security-related data flows.

Follow Anil Sharma on Twitter: anilsharma45