NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s globe-trotting foreign minister Børge Brende was supposed to mostly be home in Oslo this week, even scheduled to make an appearance in Parliament to handle state budget issues on Monday. Instead he was winding up a series of secret meetings in Beijing, to mark what likely will be viewed as the crowning achievement of his diplomatic career: normalizing Norway’s relations with China.
“This has been a long, drawn-out process, a real uphill battle,” one of Norway’s leading China experts, Harald Bøckman, told Norwegian Broadcastng (NRK) after Prime Minister Erna Solberg informed Parliament Monday morning that Norway’s six-year diplomatic freeze with China had finally melted. Both sides were now ready, Solberg said, to “look forward to the new opportunities that will open up for cooperation” between the two countries.
To see the text of a joint statement agreed between Norway and China, click here (external link to the Norwegian government’s website).
The statement itself was wide open to interpretation. It remained unclear, Bøckman noted, whether Norway had “gone too far” in appeasing the leaders in Beijing who were deeply offended when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Even though Norwegian governments have no say in who the Nobel Committee selects to win the Peace Prize, Chinese officials held Norwegian government officials responsible and cut off diplomatic relations immediately. They viewed the prize as a slap in the face to China, even though the Nobel Committee’s leader insisted it was not meant to be, and stressed that his committee operated entirely independently of whatever Norwegian government may be in power.
There was no question, however, that the Nobel Committee created a major problem for the Norwegian government. Norway’s Labour Party-led government coalition at the time, headed by current NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, was immediately confronted by fury from Beijing. Stoltenberg and his cabinet tried and failed to restore relations with China. Negotiations on a free trade deal that had been very close to being finalized were suspended. Stoltenberg’s otherwise highly acclaimed foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, made little if any progress on resolving the China problem and had lots of other matters of international importance to attend to. He later became health minister and his successor, Espen Barth Eide, had no better luck. They were all from the same Labour Party as the man who headed the Nobel Committee at the time, Thorbjørn Jagland, himself a former Norwegian prime minister and Stoltenberg’s former rival for the party leadership. Jagland was appointed to the committee when he retired from Norwegian politics. Jagland also became, and still serves, as secretary general of the Council of Europe.
Many in Norway held Jagland personally responsible for the controversial prize to Liu Xiaobo, who’d been a champion of human rights in China and still languishes in a Chinese prison. Jagland was also held largely responsible for all the trouble the prize caused, for better or worse, not least for the Labour Party government. Norwegian government officials at both ends of the political spectrum, however, generally agreed that they never would or could apologize to China for the prize since they’re never involved in the Nobel Committee’s work.
Brende inherited the conflict
When Brende took over as foreign minister three years later, after his Conservative Party won government power, his top priority was to mend fences with Chinese officials and restore diplomatic relations. He already had good connections in China, not least through his most recent work at the World Economic Forum, but he immediately hit the proverbial Chinese wall as well. A string of other major foreign policy challenges hit shortly thereafter, too, from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine to the crises in the Middle East and a host of others since. It seemed the trouble with China was back-burnered in the light of more pressing matters.
Solberg said on Monday, though, that “laborious and difficult diplomatic efforts” had continued all along, “at many levels,” to restore confidence and trust between both sides in the conflict. She candidly acknowledged that the lack of official political contact with China had been “demanding for us in many international aspects and on many individual issues.” The freeze was also tough on many Norwegian businesses that had been active in China and viewed the lack of friendly political connections as a “barrier” to more business. Many creative means had to be found to get around trade barriers, given various reports over the years that Norwegian exports like salmon were shipped through Vietnam or even the Færoe Islands so that they wouldn’t rot at customs control in China.
In pragmatic Chinese style, though, some business continued almost as usual. Knut Sunde of the national organization Norsk Industri told NRK that Norwegian exports to China still amounted to a value of NOK 23 billion last year, mostly within solar materials, metals and ship equipment. “We have had some growth, but nowhere near the export growth other European countries have had,” Sunde told NRK. Now he was looking forward to the potential for “normal” growth to resume. Shares in salmon farming businesses quickly shot up in value after Solberg announced the end of the freeze, with Marine Harvest logging the most volume on the Oslo Stock Exchange Monday morning.
Relief but concern over omission of ‘human rights’
Brende was clearly relieved. “I’m glad that we can in Beijing today mark full normalization of our political and diplomatic relations with China,” Brende said, noting that negotiations on the free trade agreement would resume “immediately.” He also described “the situation since 2010” as “demanding,” and called the statement released on Monday as “confirmation … that we agree on important steps forwards in our bilateral relation. He said the foundation had been laid for a “broad cooperation in the best interests of both countries.”
Brende said he had, in his “conversations” in Beijing, addressed the need not only for the free trade agreement but also “full normalization of Norwegian exports to China” and “professional cooperation” on a long list of issues including the climate and the Arctic. Norway plays an important role in the Arctic, an area where China wants more influence.
The statement between China and Norway was aimed at saving face for both sides. Some worried, though, that it contains no mention of the words “human rights,” a perceived lack of which in China is what prompted the Nobel Committee to honour Liu Xiaobo. While many Norwegian politicians praised the new agreement between Norway and China, Rasmus Hansson of the Greens party called on the government to “quickly” tell Chinese officials that Liu Xiaobo should now be allowed to come to Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. Since he’s still in jail, that’s highly unlikely.
The Norwegian government instead claimed in the statement that it, among other things, “fully respects China’s development path and social system,” recognizes the “one-China policy” that includes, for example, Taiwan, and “will not support actions that undermine” China’s “core interests and major concerns.” That could simply mean, however, that the Norwegian government won’t congratulate any future Nobel prize winner that also may upset Chinese leaders.
Congratulations pouring in
China scholar Bøckman, long on the faculty at the University of Oslo and among those congratulating the government Monday, noted that he thinks China also recognized that its decision to ignore Norway for the past six years has had a cost as well. It was also likely important, Bøckman suggested, for China to mend diplomatic conflicts before the change of government in the US. The US’ election of the unpredictable Donald J Trump as president presents new challenges for China along with many other countries, and Bøckman thinks China needs to be able to concentrate on US relations in the months and years ahead.
Brende’s absence in Parliament on Monday was, not surprisingly, excused, and the work of both Brende and his team of diplomats at the foreign ministry was hailed even by the leader of the government’s opposition in the national assembly, Jonas Gahr Støre. Now head of the Labour Party, the man who held Brende’s job when the fateful Nobel Prize was awarded knows only too well how difficult it was to strike a truce with China. “We commend the government’s work to establish normal relations between Norway and China,” Støre said in Parliament on Monday. He also told NRK that it was a long, drawn-out process, and that Brende’s team had to “take the time needed” to come to terms with their counterparts in Beijing. After months of criticizing and quarreling with the government over everything from the budget to climate measures, Støre was complimentary and congratulatory for a change, and not just in the spirit of the upcoming holidays.
Congratulations also streamed in thoughout the day from other party leaders, business and labour officials. The leaders of the government’s own two support parties, however, noted that “we must remember to speak up regarding sides of China worth of criticism,” as Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats put it. Trine Skei Grande of the Liberals stressed that Norway will continue to “focus on human rights in China.”
Brende seemed receptive, saying that such issues “can be talked about again” at some future point. On Monday, however, he preferred to concentrate on the hard-won breakthrough.