China’s rejection disappoints Norway

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Chinese authorities have rejected Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s latest effort last week to normalize relations between the two countries, and ministry officials appear disappointed. It remains unclear who will make the next move now, although the Chinese say they expect more “tangible efforts” from the Norwegians.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre may be considering the old saying "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," as he tries to normalize relations with China. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

The two sides have been communicating recently through Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), since direct high-level contact froze with last year’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Chinese authorities have been blaming the Norwegian government for the award that embarrassed and angered them, even though the Norwegian Nobel Committee operates independently of the government and Parliament.

Støre launched the latest round of diplomatic overtures by publishing a lengthy commentary in DN last week and telling the paper that he and his government colleagues have taken China’s angry reaction to the Peace Prize seriously and “understand” that the Chinese are upset. He made no apology, since the government can’t take responsibility for the Nobel Committee’s decisions, but Støre also praised China’s social and economic progress and made it clear the current freeze in relations was untenable.

Støre, according to DN, had spent weeks working on his diplomatic gesture towards the Chinese but didn’t satisfy them. The embassy in Oslo sent what it called “China’s official position on Foreign Minister Mr. Jonas Gahr Støre’s article published on Dagens Næringsliv” and made it clear Støre effort didn’t go far enough.

Now the Chinese seem most angry over the Norwegian government’s expressions of support for the Peace Prize to Liu, not just that the Nobel Committee made the award. Chinese authorities initially seemed to hold the Norwegian government responsible for the Peace Prize. Now they have written to DN that ” … current Sino-Norwegian relations (are) in difficulty because the Norwegian Nobel Committee granted last year’s … Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese criminal serving (a) jail term in China, and the Norwegian Government supported this wrong decision. This constitutes contempt for China’s internal affairs, thus causing great damage to … bilateral relations.”

The “official” response claimed that China “attaches great importance to the relations between China and Norway and has made great efforts to develop the relation.” Now, however, “we expect that the Norwegian side will make tangible efforts to restore and develop the bilateral relations.”

That may require, in the absence of an apology for the prize itself, an apology from the Norwegian government for supporting the Peace Prize, or perhaps a statement from the Norwegian government that it’s sorry the Chinese were so offended by Norway’s support for the prize. Norwegian governments, regardless of political make-up, however, have a long tradition of supporting the Peace Prize and congratulating its winner no matter who it is, so it would be controversial within Norway for the government to make any apology to appease the Chinese.

DN reported that Støre didn’t want to comment on the Chinese response but a foreign ministry spokesman wrote in an e-mail to DN that the ministry had “taken note” of the Chinese reaction. “Norway believes it is in both countries’ interests to restore normal relations, and Norway will continue to work on this.”

Other reaction to the latest developments was mixed. Opposition politician Jan Tore Sanner, a Member of Parliament and deputy leader of the Conservative Party who was among those nominating Liu, already has said he thinks Støre needs to be tougher and insists “Norway has nothing to apologize for. The Nobel Prize is independent and it’s the Chinese and not Norwegian authorities who have closed the door on political contact.” He believes the responsibility for mending relations lies with the Chinese government, not the Norwegian.

A leading consultant on Chinese relations, Henning Kristoffersen, told DN meanwhile that “it’s absolutely positive” that the Chinese stress how important the Norwegian-Chinese relationship is. “But then they also boost how serious it is that the Norwegian government supported the Nobel Committee’s decision,” Kristoffersen told DN. He thinks the Chinese now expect direct contact from Støre.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund