‘A lot being done’ to melt China freeze

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Norway’s consul general in Guangzhou told an annual Norway-Hong Kong business seminar at the Grand Hotel in Oslo this week that the current diplomatic freeze with China “can’t continue.” Too much potential for trade and political cooperation, it seems, is being lost.

Chinese authorities prevented Liu Xiaobo from receiving his Nobel Peace Prize and froze diplomatic relations with Norway, but China's ambassador attended a seminar organized by the Norway-Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce at the Grand Hotel on Wednesday. The hotel is used every year by the Nobel Committee and Liu would have stayed there, had he been allowed to attend. PHOTO: Views and News

“We need to re-establish a relationship with China,” said Tormod C Endresen, who’s been consul general in Guangzhou since 2008. He had just delivered an otherwise upbeat address entitled “Norwegian interests in modern China” that outlined all the business still being done between the two countries. He called China “a very capable competitor” also in industries where Norway has been “a global leader,” and stressed that “we (Norwegians) have to take part in the Chinese growth.”

That hasn’t been easy since Chinese officials, furious over the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, cut off political contact including final negotiations for a free trade agreement between China and Norway. Official talks between Norway and China on any political issue have been suspended ever since.

Consul General Tormod Endresen in Guangzhou PHOTO: Ministry of Foreign Affairs blog

Endresen still sees potential for industrial partnerships and stressed that Norwegian business needs to look at the Chinese market not simply as a source of cheap labour for production but as a source of industrial technology and knowledge. He encouraged more Norwegian firms to do business in China and invest in China, and for Norwegian students to study Mandarin. Endresen especially sees great potential for economic cooperation in the areas of offshore wind energy, offshore design and technology (where Norwegian expertise is internationally recognized), salmon and other seafood, high-end furniture and electronic products and even tourism. Increasing numbers of Chinese are now willing and able to travel abroad.

But “much of the potential can’t be realized under the current situation,” Endresen conceded. “As Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has said (external link), this can’t continue.” Asked what Norway is doing to mend relations with China, he said he couldn’t comment “on the nature of the work, but a lot is being done.”

Endresen’s position in Guangzhou is itself fairly controversial within portions of the business community in Hong Kong and among Hong Kong officials as well. Støre closed Norway’s former consulate in Hong Kong in favour of opening one in Shanghai and then another in Guangzhou. “We would very much like to see Norway re-open a general consulate in Hong Kong,” said Agnes Allcock, director-general of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London. She also spoke at the seminar to promote Hong Kong as a major gateway to China and hub for all of Asia.

Hong Kong still warmly welcomes Norwegians. PHOTO: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Richard Corwin, managing director for Norwegian maritime insurer Gard in Hong Kong, went so far as to call Hong Kong “the center of Asia” and “the best base for doing business in China.” Corwin praised everything from Hong Kong’s open and free economy to its “simple and easy tax structure,” stable and clear business regulations and hard-working, multilingual and loyal workforce. Gard is in Hong Kong to be close to many of its shipping clients, he said, and benefits from Hong Kong’s status as “an excellent place to do business.”

Olav Chen, senior portfolio manager for Storebrand Capital Management in Oslo who follows the Chinese economy closely, also sees huge potential in China despite a current but “intended” slowdown in the country’s economic growth. Chen urged his seminar audience to “listen to what the Chinese government says” as a means of predicting new trends. He doesn’t think Beijing will come with aggressive stimulus programs because the government wants to “cool down” growth rates and, not least, housing prices. Chen thinks many western economists underestimate government control in China, and one “megatrend” he sees is government promotion of private consumption. That can open major new markets.

Few signs of diplomatic thaw
China’s ambassador to Norway, Tang Guoqiang, attended the seminar organized by the Norway-Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce at Oslo’s Grand Hotel, ironically the very hotel where Peace Prize winners traditionally stay and where the Nobel Committee hosts the annual Peace Prize banquet. Tang, however, seems to be holding out for an official apology from the Norwegian government over the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s unlikely, since the government has no direct involvement in Nobel Committee decisions.

There haven’t been many signs of progress in thawing relations since an unsuccessful overture from Støre last autumn. To the contrary, newspaper Aftenposten reported recently that Norway now seems poised to block China’s request to be a permanent observer at Arktisk Råd, the council of nations with Arctic territory that includes Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the US, Canada and Russia as permanent members. China wants observer status, not least because of its interest in new Arctic trade routes that may open because of melting ice. Norway, however, reportedly has said it would be difficult to approve such status since the Chinese refuse to talk to the Norwegians. As a permanent member, Norway has the power to block China’s request, since all members must agree on observers.

Just last week, Norway’s foreign ministry also turned down an initiative from Bergen’s aquarium to send several penguins as a gift to another aquarium in China that had expressed interest in buying six of them. Støre praised the aquarium’s own effort, but made it clear the government wasn’t making “official gifts” right now.

It thus remains unclear exactly what Endresen is referring to when he claims “a lot is being done” to mend the Nobel damage. In the meantime, Hong Kong officials welcome Norwegians with open arms.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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