Speculation swirls over Chinese chat

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UPDATED: For the first time in two years, there’s been some top diplomatic contact between Norway and China. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Monday that Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, had a brief but cordial back-room conversation while both were attending an Asian-European summit in Laos.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was meeting many Asian leader in Laos on Monday, among them Thailand’s prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. NRK reported a backroom meeting with China’s prime minister as well, which may mark a breakthrough in a two-year diplomatic freeze between Norway and China. PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor

Norway was admitted on Monday as a member of ASEM, the Asian-European Meeting that brings together top political leaders from Asia and Europe. Stoltenberg was attending for the first time and found himself standing directly behind Wen (and next to Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev) when all the leaders assembled on a platform to have a group photo taken.

NRK correspondent, Anders Magnus, who is based in Beijing but has been covering a tour through Asia by Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, reported that Stoltenberg and Wen also met in a back room and had a chat.

It was the first time Norwegian and Chinese leaders have spoken since October 2010, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Chinese leaders reacted with fury and have blamed Norway’s government for the prize ever since.

All top political contact has been suspended, several Norwegian companies have encountered difficulties doing business in China and many Norwegians have been denied visas to China, among them former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik. Stoltenberg and his government, meanwhile, have refused to apologize for a prize they have no control over but which they supported as did many other governments around the world.

China backed Norway’s ASEM membership
As ties continue to strengthen between Norway and other Asian nations, Stoltenberg was happy to attend the Asian-European Meeting on Monday for the first time. Norway was invited to join, with the backing of China, and Stoltenberg readily accepted, calling it a “priority” for Norway at a time of rising commerce and increased Asian interest in Norway and its Arctic areas.

Stoltenberg told NRK that he thanked Wem for helping clear the way for Norway’s ASEM membership. “I expressed gratitude that Norway was part of this forum for European-Asian cooperation,” Stoltenberg said after his encounter with Wem. “It was natural to offer thanks for the support that made it possible.”

Membership in ASEM offers new possibilities for the “dialogue” Stoltenberg consistently promotes. “We want normal political contact with China and we express that in conversations where it’s natural,” Stoltenberg said. “I won’t speculate in how important it is that Norway is taken on as a member in this forum, but we see it as a positive contribution to tighter dialogue with countries that are here, including China.”

He stressed that “it’s always important to talk with one another, and it’s better to talk together than not to.”

‘First signal’
Torbjørn Færovik, a former NRK correspondent who has since written several books on China, said the meeting between Stoltenberg and Wem, however brief, was “a good sign for Norway.” He doesn’t think it was coincidental: “It may be a first signal that China is now willing to move forward and improve relations with Norway,” he told NRK. “China has painted itself into a corner that’s difficult to get out of, so China has needed time to take the next step.”

Norway is considered a small but important country for China, because of its wealthy oil and gas sector and access to the Arctic. And China is important for Norway “because 21 percent of the world’s population lives there,” Færøvik said.

“It’s in Norway’s interests to have good relations with China,” he added, “but not at the expense of important principles, and Norwegian politicians are very clear about that.”

Stoltenberg also had meetings at ASEM with the leaders of, among other nations, Indonesia, Thailand and The Philippines. He led Norway’s delegation to the meeting of ASEM, which has 51 member countries and was formed in 1996.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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