The Bush administration and most western governments say they will not support any boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in China over that country's handling of unrest in Tibet and its human-rights record in general. But on the streets of Europe—and perhaps soon elsewhere—demonstrators are angrily challenging China's actions, seeking to disrupt the ceremonial route of the Olympic torch.
If the protests gain force, governments in Washington and around the world will very likely face growing pressure, at minimum, to step up criticism of China over its crackdown in Tibet. And that could inject an emotional—and unpredictable—element into U.S.-Chinese relations at a time when Washington is counting on Beijing for diplomatic help on North Korea and Iran, improved military cooperation, and continuing its role as a key purchaser of U.S. public debt.
China is using the games—and the long, globe-circling torch route—to highlight its arrival as a world power.
But right now, the energy on the issue seems to be shifting from quiet diplomatic entreaties for restraint to well-publicized actions on the streets. In Paris on Monday, police officials at least twice extinguished the Olympic torch in what appeared to be efforts to evade crowds of protesters. The planned route had been altered out of security concerns; hundreds of officers were joined by a helicopter and police boats to keep watch on the situation. The day before, in London, one protester shot a fire extinguisher at the flame, amid pushing and shoving with police. Chinese officials dismissed the actions as "sabotage."
Stepped-up security measures are being put in place in light of demonstrations planned in San Francisco for Wednesday, when the Olympic torch makes the only North American stop on its 85,000-mile, 21-country global relay.
Even the political conflict-averse International Olympic Committee is starting to edge into the Tibet issue. Committee President Jacques Rogge spoke Sunday of being "very concerned" over the violence and called for a "rapid peaceful resolution in Tibet." No doubt, he is concerned that the subject of Tibet is now posing a risk of injecting political tension into the global sporting event.
In France, meanwhile, the anger over Tibet has found a partially sympathetic reaction in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. He has hinted at the possibility of steering clear of the Olympics opening ceremony on August 8.
President Bush is planning to attend part of the games, and he opposes any boycott. However, administration concern over the Tibet violence seems to have grown. Bush recently called Chinese President Hu Jintao in a burst of confidential diplomacy asking China to hold back on harsh measures and talk directly with the Tibetan exile leader, the Dalai Lama. China is blaming the Dalai Lama and his supporters for the violence.
U.S. officials have called the games "an opportunity" for China to put its best face forward, with one even saying it had "a responsibility" to do so after having sought the games. They are hoping that that responsibility will be fulfilled before the Tibet issue casts a cloud over the entire relationship.