India joins diplomatic boycott of Olympics after Chinese soldier from Himalayan skirmish made part of torch relay

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A member of National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) holds a placard during a protest against China, in Ahmedabad, India, June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Amit Dave

NEW DELHI – India said Thursday it would join the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics after China included a soldier who was involved in a deadly border skirmish with Indian troops in the torch relay ahead of the Opening Ceremonies.

The Indian Foreign Ministry said its senior envoy to Beijing will not be attending the Games’ opening or closing events. Leaders who are expected to attend the Friday kickoff at the Chinese National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, include Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The United States, Canada, Australia and Britain are among the countries that have announced diplomatic boycotts to protest Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

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India’s withdrawal – and China’s decision to spotlight Qi Fabao – threatens to prolong a two-year dispute between the two Asian giants that began with a series of confrontations along the high-altitude border and has led to an entrenched military buildup. Military commanders from the two sides have held 14 rounds of talks to defuse border disagreements, with limited progress.

Olympic 2022 relay. Photo: Reuters

“It is indeed regrettable that the Chinese side has chosen to politicize an event like the Olympics,” Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi told reporters on Thursday as he announced the withdrawal of India’s top diplomat. The decision does not affect the participation of Arif Khan, the skier who will be the only athlete representing India in Beijing.

Chinese officials did not immediately respond to India’s announcement. Previously, after the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott in December, followed by other friendly governments, a Chinese government spokesman responded by accusing the Western countries of politicizing the sporting event and vowing they would “pay a price.”

India’s move came a day after Qi, a regimental commander in the People’s Liberation Army, became one of 1,200 torchbearers to carry the Olympic flame during its three day relay through the Olympic Park and around several sporting venues in Beijing. Qi was shown on Chinese television on Wednesday snapping into a military salute with the Chinese speed skating star Wang Meng, who handed him the torch for a short jog.

In China, Qi was awarded by top military honors and hailed as a hero in state media after he suffered serious head injuries during a June 2020 brawl with Indian troops in the Galwan Valley, a border region contested by the two giant neighbors. Qi, according to Chinese state media, was seeking to negotiate with Indian counterparts that day when he was attacked with “steel pipes, clubs and stones.” Indian officials later said 20 of its soldiers died during the ensuing brawl. China acknowledged four deaths, but widespread speculation on Chinese social media have suggested the true number of casualties may be higher.

Since recovering from a coma, Qi has been widely featured by the state broadcaster. He was photographed in his fatigues in December and gave interviews declaring he was “ready to return to the battlefield.”

After state outlets publicized Qi’s leg of torch relay on Wednesday, it drew a torrent of criticism from within India and from ranking member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, James Risch, R-Idaho.

Hu Xijin, the former editor of the Global Times and an influential Chinese state media official, defended Qi’s role on Twitter.

“Qi Fabao is a survivor of that bloody clash. He participated in the torch relay,” Hu wrote. “What I saw from it was a call for China-India border peace and call for world peace. What’s wrong with this?”

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