Norway’s Trade Minister Monica Mæland arrived in Beijing a day ahead of her government colleagues, eager to start negotiating a new free trade agreement between Norway and China. That’s her top priority as the two countries resume relations after a six-year diplomatic freeze.
“We agreed to start free trade negotiations within five months,” Mæland of the Conservative Party told reporters after meeting with senior officials in China’s trade and transport ministries. “They were incredibly positive meetings.” She said that both ministries “are impatient to get the talks going.”
She told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that she and her Chinese counterparts agreed not to use the draft of a previous free trade agreement that was nearly concluded by her predecessor in the former left-center government, Trond Giske of the Labour Party, when China cut off relations in 2010 because of anger over the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Mæland said that Norway and China will instead develop a new “modern and future-oriented” free trade pact.
Norway’s conservative coalition government in which Mæland serves is up for re-election in September, so the talks could get started before then. It remains unclear whether Mæland’s ministry will continue the talks under her leadership, since public opinion polls indicate the coalition is losing its majority in Parliament and may be replaced by another left-center coalition.
Mæland nonetheless claimed she was glad Chinese authorities “responded positively” to resuming talks at her first meeting with them, and that the five-month time span was in line with her expectations. She said it was “impossible,” however, to say how long it will take to get a new free trade agreement in place. “That depends on what demands are made during the talks,” she told DN. “We will use all available resources and are prepared for difficult negotiations.”
China, with its huge economy, remains Norway’s largest trade partner in Asia. Business has continued as usual in many sectors despite the diplomatic freeze. One executive for a large local shipowning firm in Oslo told newsinenglish.no, for example, that he and his Norwegian colleagues have kept doing business with Chinese customers all along, and making at least two courtesy visits to Beijing a year with no trouble getting visas. “They (his company’s customers) don’t care about the politics and weren’t even aware of the diplomatic freeze,” he said. The same applies to many other businesses where “pragmatic” Chinese business leaders have continued to see opportunity and been able to ignore diplomatic tensions.
Norway’s large salmon industry, however, was hit hard by the diplomatic freeze, with newspaper Dagsavisen reporting Friday that Norwegian salmon producers saw their share of the salmon market in China crash from 94 percent to 4 percent after the disputed Peace Prize was announced. Now Norwegian producers have a goal of selling NOK 10 billion (USD 1.2 billion) worth of salmon to Chinese buyers by 2025.
Mæland, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Børge Brende have a large delegation of around 240 business leaders traveling with them to China. They include the leaders of Norway’s national employers’ and trade union organizations plus the chief executives of companies like Telenor, Statoil and Yara. The head of Innovation Norway is along on the trip, and Høvik-based classification and consulting firm firm DNV GL (Veritas) will host an event in Shanghai on Saturday. Norway’s tourist, oil and gas, technology, maritime and seafood sectors are heavily represented.
“Those traveling to China have the highest probability of succeeding (in China),” Ragnhild Silkoset, at professor at Norwegian Business School BI, told Dagsavisen. Breaking into the Chinese market won’t be easy, though, since Chinese business and industry started working with many other international trade partners during the past six years. “We have to find our way back to relations and markets,” said Silkoset, who’s also along on the trip.
Dialogue first, human rights discussion later
The Norwegian business leaders were meeting with hundreds of Chinese business leaders on Friday. The thorny issue of human rights abuses in China was expected to be set aside for now. Solberg and her colleagues have been criticized in recent weeks for omitting human rights from their agendas, saying they first need to rebuild mutual confidence and a dialogue with their Chinese counterparts. They later could announce that Norway’s and China’s foreign ministries would also resume talks on human rights, at least once a year.
Mæland told newspaper Aftenposten that the criticism was “part of our freedom of expression, and human rights is something Norway is concerned about.” She doesn’t think the criticism was “strange” or unexpected, “but I think it’s important that folks understand that in order to have a dialogue, we have to create a dialogue. And that’s the starting point for the job we’re doing now.”
Asked whether human rights will be part of the agenda at future meetings between Norwegian and Chinese officials, she said, “yes, of course.”