Chinese firm fights bridge ‘boycott’

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Just six months after top Norwegian politicians mended relations with China, some local ones in the county of Nord-Trøndelag have so angered a Chinese company that it’s threatening legal action. Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG) is also accusing the local Norwegian officials of boycotting the company, as fears rise that the conflict can hurt local salmon exports to China.

Plans to build this bridge in north-central Norway have led to a new conflict that can hurt newly re-established relations with China. ILLUSTRATION: Statens vegvesen

The conflict stems from the pending construction of a 580-meter-long bridge over Beitstadsundet, the sound connecting the municipalities of Steinkjer and Verran. Not only is the bridge an important transport improvement for a new County Road 17, it’s also viewed as an important symbol of how Steinkjer and Verran are due to merge as part of a national municipal reform program.

The bridge-building project has, however, turned into a heated political conflict. Loal newspaper Trønder-Avisa reported last week that the county council in Nord-Trøndelag was excluding a bid from the Chinese construction firm SRBG, even though SRBG’s bid is the lowest of three submitted.

‘No agreement with China’
Anne Marit Mevassvik, leader of the county council in Nord-Trøndelag and representing the Labour Party, has not denied that the Chinese firm was excluded and told Trønder-Avisa why: “Within the EU and EØS (European Economic Area agreement of which Norway is a party) we have obligations to consider all bidders. There are also agreements with other countries than can lead to such obligations. But we have no such agreement with China.”

She told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) last week that all the bids were within the expected price range but that there are “many criteria” that lie within the bids, “so it’s not automatic that the Chinese have won, even if their bid is lower.” NRK reported this week that she and her colleagues want the bridge project to benefit “more local” companies.

She and the council are thus only considering two other bids to build the bridge, budgeted to cost around NOK 300 million (USD 37.5 million). Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which contributed to taking the local conflict nationwide over the weekend, reported that one of the bids is for NOK 318 million from PNC Norge, owned by Austrian interests, and the other is for NOK 339 million from Skanska Norge, a Swedish-owned construction company.

Chinese claim discrimination
SRBG, meanwhile, submitted a bid to state highway department Statens vegvesen to build the bridge for NOK 277 million, more than NOK 40 million cheaper than the next-lowest bid. The Chinese company is upset that it’s not being considered: SRBG’s project leader, Lu Wei, wrote in an email to DN that SRBG has delivered the “most cost-effective offer” within the expected price range. The Chinese company also tried to meet with Mevassvik last Friday, but claims she turned them away.

Lu thus claims the Norwegian county officials are favouring the Austria- and Swedish-owned bidders and discriminating against the Chinese company. SRBG claims the competition was thus not real, and simply not right, especially since SRBG was invited to bid in what it thought was a “normal” bidding round.

Norway’s government minister in charge of the country’s huge fish and seafood industry, Per Sandberg of the conservative Progress Party, is now worried that the conflict will jeopardize progress made in mending relations with China. “Trøndelag is Norway’s largest seafood region,” Sandberg told Trønder-Avisa. “China is, and will be, our biggest market. If the county council thinks it will now be easier to export when they exclude (a Chinese) company, I think everyone understands they’re on the wrong track. This can be dramatic.”

County ‘can’t carry out foreign policy’
Things heated up on Tuesday, with NRK reporting that the Chinese company hired a Norwegian lawyer, Robert Myhre of DLA Piper Norway, who wrote a letter to the county politicians Monday evening. In the letter he warned that they were wrongly taking foreign policy into their own hands: “The County Council (Fylkesrådet) has not been given discretionary access to carry out foreign policy, by boycotting Chinese companies.”

SRBG’s contract director, Alexandros Tsetsis, told NRK on Tuesday that he also views the county’s exclusion of the Chinese bid as a boycott. “We are surprised, but fortunately not without power or possibilities when we experience such an exclusion,” Tsetsis told NRK. “We hope the county council will move forward with us in negotiations, or postpone a decision so they can be better informed.” SRBG has other projects in Norway, and is in the process of completing construction of the Hålogalands Bridge in Narvik, its first European project.

SRBG’s lawyer claims in his letter that any further rejection of SRBG would lead to an illegal boycott. “We’re not interested in conflict, we are interested in building this bridge for everyone who lives in the region,” Tsetsis told NRK. “And we will build it together with many local subcontractors and partners, like we also did with Hålogalandsbrua (in Narvik).”

Messavik wouldn’t comment further this week, pending a county council decision on the bids. She told NRK last week, however, that “we choose to relate to the obligations we have through international agreements,” stressing that Norway has no formal agreement with China.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund