Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre granted lots of interviews this week as he prepared to lead his party’s annual meeting for the first time. In newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), Støre addressed what DN called China’s lengthy “boycott” of Norway, which began when he was still foreign minister.
“I think it’s abnormal and serious that Norway has no operative political relations with the world’s largest country,” Støre told DN’s political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim. “And I’m surprised that so many years later, it’s still a very abnormal situation.”
It began in October 2010, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year to jailed Chinese dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Chinese authorities were furious and immediately cut ties to Norwegian government officials, even though the government was not involved and has no influence over who wins the Peace Prize. The Chinese were upset that Norwegian government officials hailed the prize and congratulated the winner, as has been their custom for years.
The diplomatic freeze has continued and grew even colder recently when China restricted imports of Norwegian salmon. Chinese officials have refused to meet with their Norwegian counterparts to explain the salmon boycott, or what amount to a host of other sanctions over the past four years.
Støre, who will be Labour’s candidate for prime minister in the next national elections, attributed the stalemate to “another political way of thinking” in China. “I think there has to be a solution where both sides contribute towards putting this behind us, (and) agree on a way of moving forward,” Støre told DN. “But I think this has something to do with the leadership in China making an example in areas where they won’t be threatened. And doing this to a country like Norway is perhaps easier than to many other countries. There’s not so much risk to themselves.”
‘Puts the modern China in an astonishing light’
Støre mused further about China’s reasons for trying to punish Norway: “When I think that this is the world’s largest country, on its way towards being the world’s largest economy – for me, it’s a surprising gesture, that they in fact have to do this towards a relatively small country like Norway. It surprises me, and puts the modern China in an astonishing light.”
Asked what Norway could do to end the stalemate, Støre sighed and admitted that “I worked on it and didn’t succeed.” He said he had respect for the new conservative government’s need to work in its own way and with its contacts to resolve the situation, “but this is all about what I said, that you have to find some understanding to describe what happened and put it behind us. It’s not difficult for Norway to acknowledge that (the Nobel Peace Prize) has been badly received in China, but to go from there to expecting Norway to apologize or excuse something that an independent Nobel Committee has done, that can’t happen.”
Not criticizing current government
Støre was careful not to criticize Norway’s current foreign minister, Børge Brende of the Conservative Party, who announced when he took office in the fall of 2013 that mending relations with China was a top priority. He’s since been distracted by the crisis in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, Russian aggression, the ebola crisis, extremism and the terror threat along with a host of other pressing issues. “I know the foreign minister as a hard-working government official,” Støre told DN. “I have no reason to say that there’s been no solution because he has done anything wrong. He should get the time he needs to work on this, and we can hope for a solution.”
Brende, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and other government ministers were widely criticized for refusing to meet the Dalai Lama when he visited Oslo last spring, to avoid making the situation with China any worse. China showed no gratitude for the Norwegian government’s gesture and remained silent on the matter. “I have not found reason to criticize Erna Solberg because she didn’t receive (the Dalai Lama),” Støre said, while refusing to say whether he would have done the same. “There are so many things a government has to take into consideration and evaluate.”
‘Positive sign’ over bank membership
There was some relief in Oslo on Wednesday, meanwhile, when China announced that 57 countries had been accepted as members of its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Norway was among them, even though it could have been excluded given the diplomatic freeze.
“This is a very positive sign since it opens a new area where Norway and China can cooperate,” Marc Lanteigne, senior researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI told news bureau NTB. “It opens a window for a new type of communication.”
Neither the US nor Japan are involved in the AIIB, because of concerns the new bank will compete with the Washington DC-based World Bank and Japan’s Asian Development Bank, but many other countries including Great Britain and several other European nations will be members, along with Norway.