When Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland announced the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, many hearts sunk among both importers and exporters in Norway. They fear the prize may cost the country dearly.
Various politicians, business and trade officials, and the media spent much of the weekend analyzing how the award of the Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident may damage trade between Norway and China. There’s serious concern, even expectations, that Chinese authorities — embarrassed and angry over the prize because of the criticism it directs at a lack of democracy and human rights in China — will react with some form of economic penalties against Norway.
Government officials and the Nobel Committee itself have tried repeatedly to point out that the committee operates independently of the government and Parliament, but the Chinese either don’t seem to understand that or won’t accept the distinction. They quickly blasted the prize to their steadfast dissident Liu Xiaobo, and warned the award will damage relations with Norway.
The questions, then, are over what form the damage will take. The value of Norwegian exports to China has jumped from NOK 6 billion to NOK 15 billion in the past four years, reports newspaper Aftenposten, with sales of seafood alone, for example, up 50 percent over last year.
Norway’s fishing industry worries it won’t be able to sell as much of its salmon to China, several shipowners fear business disruptions in the form of cancelled meetings or delays in various approvals, and there may also be delays in what was supposed to be the imminent signing of a free trade agreement between Norway and China.
‘Deal can be postponed’
“I expect that the signing of the agreement will be postponed, because the Chinese want to signal that they’re not happy with the Peace Prize,” senior portfolio manager Olav Chen at insurance and finance firm Storebrand told newspaper Dagsavisen. Chen is himself from a Chinese family that emigrated to Norway, and he travels frequently to China. (PicApp photo at right shows a demonstration in support of the prize to Liu in Hong Kong on Sunday, exactly the sort of challenge to their authority that the Chinese don’t want.)
Chen doesn’t think the free trade deal will be abandoned, but delays will be costly. “Norway has wanted to be the first European country with a free trade deal with China,” Chen noted. “If the agreement is postponed, other countries will have the possibility to sign agreements before us. Then Norwegian firms that want to expand in China will be left behind, and that can create billions in losses.”
The free trade agreement would open the Chinese market for Norwegian exporters. State officials have worked hard to get the deal in place, with the government minister in charge of business and industry, Trond Giske, spending 11 days in China early last summer. Several other ministers have also made trips to China.
Fisheries Minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen took off for China yesterday, and was clearly hoping for “business as usual.” She adopted the same line as other Norwegian ministers over the weekend, stressing that the government has no control whatsoever over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize and trying to downplay any ill effects of the award to Liu. She was met by news on her arrival, however, that one of her meetings with a top Chinese official had already been cancelled.
Morits Skaugen, a Norwegian shipowner who’s been active in the Chinese market for years, predicted “subtle reactions.” The Chinese, for example, may no longer make the looming free trade deal with Norway a priority. “Meetings that should have been held may be cancelled, because the Chinese suddenly had other things to do,” Skaugen told newspaper Aftenposten.
Shipowner and industrialist Jens Ulltveit-Moe noted that the Chinese were already on the defensive over currency exchange conflicts with the US and the European Union. Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize award, he told Aftenposten, will be like “salt in the wound.”