Norway and China set to reconcile

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After three years of a diplomatic freeze, the foreign ministers of Norway and China had a meeting this summer and both expressed a strong desire that relations between the two countries normalize. It’s “taken some time,” according to Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide,  to convince Chinese leaders that the Norwegian government has no influence on the Norwegian Nobel Committee, but now “a fine process” of reconciliation is said to be well underway.

It was at an ASEAN meeting in July that Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide had a meeting with China's new foreign minister, Wang Yi. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

It was at an ASEAN meeting in July that Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide had a meeting with China’s new foreign minister, Wang Yi. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

It was the Nobel committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo that infuriated the Chinese government. It blamed the Norwegian government for awarding the prize to someone the Chinese leaders view as a criminal, and all top level contact ceased between China and Norway.

Now, with a new government in place in China, “both countries want to put the conflict behind them,” Eide told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) over the weekend. “We must remember that the dissatisfaction with the Peace Prize is an issue from the previous Chinese regime. Now there is new leadership in China, and they seem interested in easing relations. I got a very positive impression of my new Chinese colleague.”

Norway was officially joining a "peace and cooperation" agreement at ASEAN, but behind the scenes, Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide (left) was mending relations with his Chinese counterpart. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway was officially joining a “peace and cooperation” agreement at ASEAN, but behind the scenes, Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide (left) was mending relations with his Chinese counterpart. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Eide met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a meeting in Brunei of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July. “At the ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh last year, China appeared quite cold,” Eide told DN. “Now the situation was entirely different.”

Asked whether there was a common understanding between Norway and China that relations would normalize, Eide replied that “it’s more than an understanding. It’s an expressed desire by both sides.”

Eide said he and Wang Yi had agreed not to reveal specifics of issues being discussed in the “process” to which Eide referred. “I can do that when we’ve met our goals, but both countries need to accommodate one another,” he said.

No apology
Eide did confirm that Norway would not be making any apology for the Peace Prize. “The Nobel Committee is independent of the Norwegian government and it’s taken some time to convince the Chinese about that,” he said. “At the same time, we don’t want to distance ourselves from the awards.”

He said, though, that he understands why “the official China” reacted as it did. “In Norway it can seem logical to award a human rights prize to Liu Xiaobo, but we must understand that the award is viewed quite differently with Chinese eyes,” Eide said. “One part of the process we’re in is to acknowledge that the countries have different cultures.”

Eide said he thinks the entire situation “will be resolved in the forseeable future.” It won’t be a moment too soon for Norwegian business and industry that have seen trade with China plummet or be hit with punitive measures imposed by Chinese authorities.

Norwegian salmon producers, for example, have seen their exports to China dive, with their market share for fresh salmon falling from 92 percent to just 29 percent last year. Both the UK and the Færoe Islands now export more fish to China that Norway does.

‘Very good news’
Other industries have also felt punished by Chinese authorities, but tourism is up and Chinese importers reportedly want to buy Norwegian seafood, putting their own pressure on their authorities to ease relations.

“If the Norwegian government manages to normalize relations with China it will be very good news,” Ulf Sverdrup of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI told DN. “China is important for Norway, so good relations with China are important.”

Eide said he’s invited Wang Yi to visit Svalbard, and noted that the Chinese authorities have shown great interest in how Norway and Russia resolved their border issues in the Barents Sea.

“The new leadership wants to ease relations to its neighbours (which include Russia) and that’s also positive for Norway,” Eide said. China is also keenly interested in Arctic issues, sent its ambassador to Norway to the Barents Summit earlier this summer, and has secured a seat, with Norway’s support, on the Arctic Council.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund