Half of all Norwegians think it’s cowardly for Parliamentary President Olemic Thommessen to refuse a meeting with the Dalai Lama when he arrives in Oslo next month. While the public wants Norway’s top politicians to meet with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to re-enforce Norway’s commitment to human rights, China experts warned such a reception would irreparably damage the already icy relations between Norway and China.
The Dalai Lama is due to arrive in Norway in early May to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize. Earlier this month Thommessen, Norway’s highest ranking person after the king and a formerly outspoken supporter of Tibetan rights, confirmed he would not receive the Dalai Lama to avoid further damaging Norway’s ties with China. Relations soured between the two countries after Chinese dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
In a survey conducted for newspaper VG, half of all respondents said it was cowardly of Thommessen not to meet the Dalai Lama. Socialist Left (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV) voters were the most critical, while supporters of Thommessen’s own party, the Conservatives (Høyre) were a little more understanding.
Stressing the ‘private’ nature of the visit
The Dalai Lama’s visit has long been categorized as “private,” claim top government politicians in explaining why no official receptions are planned. There also remains no word on whether any other government representatives will meet with him.
The issue was debated during question time in the Parliament on Wednesday, while spokespersons in the Office of the Prime Minister continue to say there are no plans for any meetings despite Norway’s long-stated support of human rights and for the Dalai Lama himself, who’s been warmly welcomed on earlier visits to Norway by top politicians including former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik.
Six out of 10 Norwegians, however, now think either or both Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Børge Brende should meet the spiritual leader, according to VG’s poll. Five out of 10 responded it would be cowardly of them to avoid the Dalai Lama out of consideration to China. Just 14 percent said no official reception was the best course of action.
“Very many in Norway have been involved in the Tibet issue,” Thommessen told VG. “I think it is very understandable that many find it strange that I believe it is wrong for me to receive him. When I still say it is the right decision, it is because Norway’s relations with China are in a special situation after the Peace Prize was awarded in 2010.”
Thommessen, who also defended his position on state broadcaster NRK’s nightly national newscast Dagsrevy on Tuesday, said he believed the “most appropriate in this situation is to give a clear signal (to China) that we want better relations with a superpower that sits in all international forums where global issues are discussed, whether it’s climate change, human rights or democracy.”
Thommessen denied he was being a coward who feared another country’s reaction. “It is appropriate to refrain from a meeting to strengthen your own country’s position,” he told VG. “I am not lying flat for China.”
Warning against the conflict continuing ‘into eternity’
Henning Kristoffersen, a senior advisor at DNV GL and widely considered an expert on Norwegian-Chinese trade, supported Thommessen’s view. Kristoffersen told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday that the government must refrain from meeting the Dalai Lama to have any hopes of normalizing relations with China.
“If the government chooses to meet the Dalai Lama, the Chinese authorities will perceive that as a clear signal that the Norwegian government does not want to improve relations,” said Kristoffersen. He said it was difficult to say if refusing the spiritual leader would be rewarded by China, but as it stands, Norway has very little leeway.
“It is difficult to find any middle ground in this issue,” said Kristoffersen, who also has urged a conciliatory approach towards China on earlier occasions, not least for the benefit of Norwegians doing business in China. “You are forced to take definite positions. Either the relations with China will deteriorate, or there is an opportunity for improvement. One thing is certain: If the government meets the Dalai Lama, the conflict with China can continue into eternity.”
‘Quiet diplomacy’ option
Professor Rune Svarverud at the University of Oslo said Norway supports taking the quiet diplomacy route. “If the government’s target is to improve relations with China, it is long-term fair-weather policies that apply – you lay low and avoid irritating,” he said. “We must remember that China uses Norway to set an example. They will show the world how it goes for those who irritate China.”
Svarverud said Norway is a small and unimportant country to China, and a bad relationship detrimental to Norway costs China very little. He said Norway fears a similar situation to the conflict between Denmark and China, after Norway’s neighbour received the Dalai Lama in 2010. China then refused to cooperate at an important climate summit hosted by Denmark, and a parliamentary majority had to adopt a statement recognizing China’s right to Tibet to appease the superpower.