New minister may melt China freeze

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Now both China and Norway have new governments, and the appointment of Børge Brende as Norway’s new foreign minister has further raised hopes that the two countries’ diplomatic freeze may soon melt. Brende is “definitely the best man we have” to solve Norway’s problems with China, says one former top diplomat.

Foreign Minister Børge Brende from the Conservative Party tests out his new chair in the ministry's office on Wednesday. At left, holding flowers, is his predecessor, Espen Barth Eide of the Labour Party, and at right is Heiki Holmas, the former minister in charge of foreign aid who's not being replace in the new government. Brende will handle both foreign policy and foreign aid. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Foreign Minister Børge Brende from the Conservative Party tests out his new chair in the ministry’s office on Wednesday. At left, holding flowers, is his predecessor, Espen Barth Eide of the Labour Party, and at right is Heiki Holmås, the former minister in charge of foreign aid who’s not being replaced in the new government. Brende will handle both foreign policy and foreign aid. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“Børge Brende is a well-known name in the right circles in China,” Erik Solheim, the top Norwegian diplomat who now works for the OECD in Paris, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Solheim hails from an opposition party, the Socialist Left (SV), but he had high praise for the new conservative government’s decision to name Brende as foreign minister.

Solheim said that Brende’s most important job will be mend relations with Chinese officials, who were angered over the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese lost face and blamed the Norwegian government, even though it has no say in who the Nobel committee chooses.

Stalemate continues
A three-year-long stalemate continues, and the situation remains so precarious that newspaper Aftenposten reported recently that Norway’s foreign ministry won’t replace its ambassador in Beijing even though his normal term has long run out. The Norwegians are afraid that the Chinese officials won’t approve a new Norwegian ambassador.

Solheim noted that Norwegian businesses are constantly losing new contracts in China and that Norway has lost contact with China in other areas of foreign relations, like peace broking efforts. “If you want to influence the situation in Sudan, Somalia, Irak og Iran, China is the next most important country after the US,” said Solheim, who’s been a UN envoy himself in peace broking issues. Contact is also important regarding developments in other areas of Africa and Asia, not least Korea and Burma.

Now there are new government officials both in Beijing and Oslo, and Brende could confirm during an appearance on state broadcaster NRK Wednesday night that he knows the new Chinese prime minister personally. As managing director for the World Economic Forum (WEF), Brende has had close contact with Chinese politicians and business leaders in recent years. He was in Dalian recently and spoke at a WEF seminar there. He has also been on the board of the China Council for the International Cooperation on Environment and Development, and has been a special adviser to the Chinese government on climate issues.

‘Great expectations’
Gerhard Heiberg, the Norwegian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who long has wanted to placate China, agreed with Solheim that Brende is the best man to help normalize relations with China. “For the first time in three years I have great expectations that relations with China can normalize,” Heiberg told DN. “Børge Brende enjoys enormous confidence in China, and I have heard Chinese leaders speak well of him. This couldn’t be better for Norwegian-Chinese relations.”

There’s already been some signs of improvement. China sent its own new ambassador to Norway last year, who was quickly approved, and Norway helped clear the way for China to secure observer status on the Arctic Council. Espen Barth Eide, who stepped down as Norwegian foreign minister on Wednesday to make way for Brende, has said that both countries want to put the conflict over the Nobel behind them.

Heiberg now urges Brende to “reach out a hand” to China and sit down to talk. Brende himself is keenly aware of the challenge.

‘High on my agenda’
“China’s influence in the world is increasing and it’s important that Norway has good relations to the country,” Brende told NRK, noting that Norway was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the People’s Republic of China. “It’s high on my agenda to have a good dialogue close cooperation with China.”

Asked how he’ll handle the lack of human rights in China, which is what prompted Brende’s party colleague Jan Tore Sanner to nominate Liu for the Nobel Peace Prize, Brende responded: “China has the world’s next-largest economy and is the world’s most populated land with 1.3 billion people. What China has accomplished, by lifting 600 million people out of poverty, is without parallel in world history. Getting food on the table for people, a job and a place to live is also part of fundamental human rights. That’s part of the picture.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund