President Joe Biden said Thursday he was considering a US diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, in what would be an attempt to show toughness over China's rights abuses without impacting US athletes.
That is "something we are considering," Biden told reporters while meeting with Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, at the White House. The Beijing Olympics take place next February.
Biden's comments followed a long-awaited video summit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping late Monday, during which the two leaders said they wanted to ensure stability and prevent accidental conflicts.
The US president is under pressure at home to speak out on China's human rights abuses, especially in the Xinjiang region where the US government says repression of the Uyghur ethnic group qualifies as genocide
Campaigners say that at least one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.
China's foreign ministry on Friday brushed off the rights accusations as "inconsistent with the truth and completely groundless," calling Washington's claims a "joke in the eyes of Chinese people."
"Politicising sports is against the Olympic spirit, and harms the interests of athletes from all countries," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing Friday.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration would soon announce a diplomatic boycott, meaning that while athletes would still compete, government representatives would not be in the stands.
White House officials said that the issue was not raised during the Biden-Xi virtual summit.
US-China relations hit a low point under Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, with a massive trade war and incendiary debate over how the Covid-19 virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Biden has sought to re-engage with Beijing, while at the same time focusing on strengthening traditional US alliances to counter China's ever-growing economic clout and military presence across the Indo-Pacific region.
He has held two lengthy phone calls with Xi and was keen to meet in person.
But with the Chinese leader not traveling outside of the country since the start of the Covid pandemic, this week's virtual summit was the only possible next step.
Following Biden's mention of a possible Olympics boycott, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said she did not "have an update on what our presence will be."
"I want to give the national security team and the president space to make the decision," she said.
For Biden, that decision will be part of a complex diplomatic balancing act.
His administration has left Trump-era trade tariffs on China in place and continues to order naval patrols through sensitive international sea lanes that China is accused of trying to bring under its control.
However, with Biden also emphasizing the need for dialogue, critics on the right say he is being too soft.
This makes the looming Olympic Games a political flashpoint.
"The United States must implement a complete and total boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. The threat to our athletes and China's crimes against humanity leave us no other option," Republican Senator Tom Cotton tweeted Thursday.
Psaki said the White House sees US-China relations "through the prism of competition, not conflict."
However, she added, "we have serious concerns" about human rights.