The Beijing Winter Olympics, which were overshadowed by a U.S.-led "diplomatic boycott" over China's alleged human rights abuses, closed Sunday night, with President Xi Jinping believed to have already turned his interest toward Taiwan.
Before the Feb. 4 opening, China was apparently irritated by the decision of the United States and some other democratic countries not to send their government officials to the Olympics, as the Asian power tried to use the global sporting event to boost its national prestige.
Xi, however, must be confident now that the success of the Beijing Games bolstered public support for him in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party's twice-a-decade congress in the fall, in which he is set to secure a controversial third term as leader, pundits said.
Moreover, with the attention of the media worldwide diverted to the Ukraine crisis sparked by Russia's massive military buildup along their border, criticisms of China's human rights violations were not heard so much during the Olympics, also benefiting Xi, they added.
Now that Xi has achieved one of his cherished goals of successfully staging the Beijing Games to pave the way for holding on to power for life, diplomatic sources in China warned that he might turn his focus to reunifying self-ruled Taiwan with the mainland.
While the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is concentrated on the evolving circumstances surrounding Ukraine, possibly lowering its guard in the Asia-Pacific region, China might dare to take military action against Taiwan, the sources said.
In late 2021, the United States pledged not to dispatch its officials to the Beijing Olympics in response to what it has labeled "genocide" against the Uyghur Muslims in China's far-western Xinjiang. Some of its allies, such as Britain and Australia, followed suit.
Even after the games began, the Communist-led government was lambasted by Western nations due largely to its selection of a Uyghur cross-country skier as one of the final torchbearers at the opening ceremony, as well as what appeared to be questionable calls in the proceedings of some games.
But Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, said, "Despite the diplomatic boycott, Beijing staged a successful games that impressed with efficiency and some impressive venues and contests."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has "upstaged Xi with his Ukraine maneuvering, hogging the bandwidth of Western condemnation. This has been a useful distraction for Beijing," he said.
"Pulling off the Olympics and shrugging off the diplomatic boycott stoked domestic patriotism," Kingston said. "The extravaganza will linger in China and contribute to the ongoing deification of Xi -- the chairman of everything."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters on Friday that heads of U.S. and British delegations said the Beijing Olympics was "splendid" and their athletes were "satisfied" and enjoyed the games, brushing aside the impact of the diplomatic boycott.
Still, the Olympics underscored tensions between China and Taiwan, which have been governed separately since they split in 1949 due to a civil war. Beijing regards the island as a renegade province to be reunified with the mainland by force if necessary.
Taiwan has joined most sporting events as "Chinese Taipei," but the mainland's state-run media called the island's team "China, Taipei" at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, triggering a backlash from the government of President Tsai Ing-wen.
At a press conference on Thursday, Yan Jiarong, a spokeswoman for the Beijing Olympics, openly defended China's position concerning Taiwan in rare remarks during an Olympics, whose charter requires the political neutrality of sports.
"I want to say that there is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an indivisible part of China," Yan said, prompting International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach to say the following day, "This problem we did not ignore."
Bach said the IOC discussed the matter with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, and both "have restated the unequivocal commitment to remain politically neutral as it is required by the Olympic charter."
One of the diplomatic sources said, "It is obvious that Xi's leadership has become increasingly hostile to Taiwan since independence-leaning Tsai became president in 2016."
"What we know is that Xi wants to become a historic figure equivalent to Mao Zedong by reunifying Taiwan with the mainland, so we should not let our guard down against Beijing's moves" on the island, he said, referring to the founder of modern China.
"The possibility cannot be ruled out that a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia will prod Xi to use military might to attain his ambition," he added.
Nevertheless, foreign affairs experts expect that Xi will not invade Taiwan before the Communist Party's congress, pointing out that the situations and histories concerning cross-strait relations and those of Russia and Ukraine are quite different.
Russia and Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991.
Victor Teo, a political scientist at the University of Cambridge, said Taiwan is "considered by most people and countries to be part of China," but Ukraine is a "sphere of influence" of Russia.
The only similarity is that Ukraine and Taiwan "respectively constitute red lines that (Russia and China) feel Washington should respect."
Tai Wan-chin, a professor emeritus at Tamkang University in New Taipei City, echoed the view, saying Ukraine is a "member of the United Nations," whereas "only 14 countries now give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan."
"Minor frictions cannot be thoroughly precluded," but "Taiwan is in less danger than Ukraine at this moment because of its geopolitical importance. Ukraine is not a core interest of the United States," Tai said.
"Japan is a vital interest of the United States. As Taiwan is important in the context of Japan's security, the United States is more willing to intervene militarily in case of an attack on Taiwan from Beijing," he said.
Beijing claims that Taiwan is a "core interest" of China. Xi said in a speech in October 2021 that Beijing can completely reunify Taiwan with the mainland but added that national reunification "by peaceful means" serves China's interests.