Modern Times: A year of playing dangerously?

The Winter Olympics in PyeongChang was not the first time two sovereign states have fielded unified teams: East and West Germany marched under the same flag at the Melbourne Olympics, for no lasting diplomatic benefit.

It was not even the first time the Koreas had marched under one flag: they did so at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the year Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Sunshine Policy. Time will tell whether this most recent example of sports diplomacy will be remembered for its lasting impact, or ephemeral glimmer.

The gesture was viewed cynically by some. The Wall Street Journal accused South Korea and the western media of conspiring to deliver North Korea “…a public relations makeover worthy of the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin”. The use of historic precedent was misleading. While sport, film, and literature can be deployed in diplomacy to achieve questionable outcomes, they also have a formidable potential to be exercised for good.

In this instance, two sovereign governments perpetually on the precipice of war used sport to lay a foundation of trust on which further diplomatic engagement could be built.

The Koreas have continued to play together, on and off the field. There were joint basketball, rowing and canoeing teams fielded at the Asian Games in Indonesia. Off the field, three inter-Korean summits have been subsequently held, the third of which, from 18–20 September, discussed military issues. There was a commitment to new rules of engagement for both militaries, which represents material progress. At this most recent summit, it was announced that they would make a joint bid for the 2032 Olympic Games.

The substantive diplomatic engagement that followed PyeongChang may yet prove to be another false dawn. It may even have been encouraged by the United States to allow, with the immediate threat of crisis on the Korean Peninsula averted, a strategic focus on Iran. Irrespective, it is impossible to deny that meaningful progress has been made, or that sports diplomacy encouraged the initial breakthrough.

Sports diplomacy has become synonymous with diplomatic breakthrough. Reflecting on his use of table tennis to reach out to the United States, Zhou Enlai mused that “a ball bounced…and…the big globe was set in motion by a tiny globe”. It has since been considered an option to be used sparingly, when circumstances demand, in case of diplomatic impasse. The most recent example between the Koreas is consistent with this belief.

The tendency to use sports diplomacy sparingly, when diplomatic breakthrough is desirable but trust in traditional channels is low, ignores the full potential sport could play in international relations. An active middle power like Australia, in which sport has a strong allure that transcends gender, generation and class, should consider sport a regular feature of its international engagement.

Sport works on multiple levels. Appropriately calibrated, sport can be a softer, more positive form of diplomatic engagement. It is also a popular medium, at a time in which foreign policy must increasingly speak to both domestic and foreign audiences. In Australia’s case, sport is also a great cultural carrier, able to further understanding between peoples. There are compelling cases in which a single initiative has worked on each of these levels.

The AFL match first played in China in 2017 is now an annual event. Since Port Adelaide initially announced its intention to play an official game in China in April 2016, its journey has been shared by Australian prime ministers and cabinet members, as well as senior Chinese officials, up to and including Premier Li Keqiang who watched the match against Sydney in March 2017. The initiative has also captured popular attention, and encouraged greater understanding through people-to-people exchange. This platform will continue to grow in relevance.

As the Koreas continue to use sport as an instrument of inter-Korean diplomacy, Australia has the opportunity to re-imagine the role sport can play in its foreign affairs. There exists an opportunity to make it a characteristic feature of Australian diplomacy.

Andrew Hunter is General Manager, China Engagement, with Port Adelaide Football Club.
@AndrewHunter__

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