Under a law passed by Congress that took effect on 5 January, US officials are prohibited from taking part in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing unless President Trump signs a waiver.
The Democratic president Donald Trump, who has met regularly with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during their first 10 months in office, is yet to do so.
The two sides have already struggled to find a compromise over trade. Beijing is resisting Trump’s calls for China to de-value its currency and curtail its massive trade surplus with the US, as a means of moderating its growth. The US is demanding that China halt all economic and military activities in the South China Sea.
“There is no way the US could be welcomed back as full partners in the 2022 Olympics, even if it did come close to signing a waiver,” said a senior Beijing-based diplomat, who is not authorised to speak on the record.
The figurehead of the International Olympic Committee is a close ally of President Xi, and China is the only Asian country to hold the Olympics. China enjoys China’s praise – Trump has even described China as an “indispensable partner” for the US – and expects to have full control of the host committee even though it will not stage the games.
But Trump is instead dealing with a recalcitrant Congress. The new law, known as the Russia Sanctions Act, was introduced by Democratic senator Robert Menendez and Republican Marco Rubio, who had focused their efforts on persuading Trump to agree to the sanctions on Russia over its election meddling. They beat the banks and other businessmen from Russia that had been working with the US on the issue, and its the American authorities who have still not been imposed.
A full waiver, which is not unusual, would allow US representatives to attend games, including the US president, even if the foreign governments that operate the Olympic committee cannot provide guarantees about the protection of American athletes. However, China would have to ask the IOC if it was willing to grant such a waiver.
Chinese officials hope that any appearance by Trump on the podium in Beijing would further strengthen bilateral ties in the eyes of Chinese people, whom Xi sees as his main target in his attempt to influence Chinese society through economic and social policy.