New ambassador needed in China

Bookmark and Share

Just weeks after organizing a conciliatory state visit to China following a lengthy diplomatic freeze, Norway’s foreign ministry needs to place a new ambassador in Beijing. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wants to name Geir O Pedersen, Norway’s current ambassador to China, as his special envoy in Syria, leaving the Norwegians to replace Pedersen at a time when relations between China and Norway remain delicate.

Geir O Pedersen (left) formerly served as Norway’s ambassador to the UN, where he’s shown here with Prime Minister Erna Solberg. He was dispatched to Beijing as Norway’s ambassador to China when diplomatic relations finally were restored last year. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Wednesday that Pedersen will soon be named as UN Special Envoy to Syria. Pedersen, who most recently was Norway’s ambassador to the UN before being sent to China last year, has extensive experience in the Middle East after earlier serving as special coordinator for the UN’s work in Lebanon and at Norway’s embassy in Tel Aviv.

Pedersen was the Norwegian foreign ministry’s top choice as ambassador to China  when a six-year diplomatic freeze finally ended. China had objected mightily when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010, severing relations until the Chinese and Norwegian governments finally settled their dispute in December 2016.

China had sent its former ambassador to the UN, Wang Min, to Norway and when the Norwegian government could finally relieve its former ambassador in Beijing of his duties, its own man at the UN in New York was tapped to replace him. Pedersen has only been in China since last year and had been expected to continue smoothing ruffled feathers and following through on restored agreements between the Norwegians and the Chinese.

Ambassador Pedersen is shown here at far right, when King Harald, Queen Sonja and Norwegian government ministers met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the king’s state visit earlier this month. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Frode Overland Andersen

DN reported that Norway’s foreign ministry is hard-pressed to find a replacement for Pedersen. After so many years of frozen relations, it’s important to find a new ambassador quickly. The need comes, however, just after a major shuffle of top ambassdor posts has fallen into place and Norway’s most experienced diplomats have been assigned to other important posts.

The ambassador’s post in Beijing is especially important given the still-fragile relations with China. Norway has opted for its conciliatory approach towards China as part of a strategy to rebuild confidence before bringing up thorny issues like human rights and media censorship. Lots of major economic agreements were signed during King Harald’s and Queen Sonja’s state visit earlier this month, including a NOK 1.7 billion deal in which Aker Solutions will deliver subsea cables and systems to a Chinese oil field in the South China Sea. They’ll also need to be followed up, while Norway also seeks to strike a balance between doing well in China, and doing good.

China’s increasingly authoritarian regime, its highly questionable human rights record and, not least, its internationally controversial placement of more than a million members of its Uyghur minority into so-called “re-educational facilities” have sparked protests around the world. Norway is widely viewed as a champion of human rights but has been criticized both at home and abroad for remaining unusually quiet on China’s alleged abuses. Critics accuse the Norwegian government of being afraid to confront the Chinese, for fear of offending them once again.

King Harald V had indicated he’d bring up human rights concerns himself during his state visit to China, but ended up leaving that Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Frode Overland Andersen

King Harald told Norwegian media that he was certain Norway’s human rights concerns would be addressed during his visit to China, and raised hopes he would do so himself. He later met with China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping but opted not to, however, apparently since there’s no tradition for the royals to address political issues. Newspaper Aftenposten reported there were concerns it would be viewed as “impolite,” if Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide took it up herself.

Søreide later claimed she discussed human rights in other political meetings she had in Beijing, without going into detail about who she conferred with and what exactly they discussed. “We have covered both the overall question (of human rights) and the situation in Xinjiang (where the Uyghurs have been rounded up),” Søreide told Aftenposten. “I think there’s been a high degree of openness in these meetings.”

She stressed that “there are no restrictions regarding what we can take up, but what’s important now is that the broader a platform we can build and the more areas where we can cooperate, the easier it will be to have a meaningful dialogue also on issues that are difficult and sensitive.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) doesn’t seem to want anyone to question his authority. King Harald (right) ended up dropping human rights concerns in his meeting with Xi in Beijing. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

A top official in China’s own foreign ministry, meanwhile, didn’t like even being questioned on human rights or the situation for the Uyghurs. “We hope our friends in the media open their eyes and focus on other and wider topics than human rights,” Liu Weimin, deputy leader of the ministry, told Norwegian reporters on the very day King Harald met Xi Jinping. Liu claimed China itself knows best about the human rights situation in the country, and criticized how the media seemed obsessed with the topic.

“We’re ready to communicate with western countries about human rights,” Aftenposten reported Liu as saying, “but we oppose politicizing it. We won’t accept how western countries put themselves on a morally high horse and try to lecture to China.”

The situation seemed much the same when the Norwegian Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee visited China earlier this autumn as well. The committee was split over whether to bring up the detentions of not just Uyghurs but other Muslims and minorities as well, with MP Michael Tetzschner of the Conservative Party saying that was best left for Søreide and her ministry to address. Audun Lysbakken of the Socialist Left party (SV), however, cited the “extremely serious reports” on the detentions issued by the UN, and called it “completely unacceptable to intern hundreds of thousands of people in reeducation centers.”

Members of the Norwegian Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee also visited China this fall, shown here in Beijing in September. They were split over whether to bring up human rights concerns, but MP Abid Raja claims he did, and that Chinese officials were concerned about international criticism. PHOTO: Stortinget

MP Abid Raja of the Liberal Party claimed he did take up human rights during the committee visit, and had the impression that Chinese officials were concerned by the international criticism they’ve received. “Norway and other small countries can have greater influence that we perhaps realize,” he wrote in a column published in Aftenposten earlier this month. He thanked King Harald for speaking out, even though the king ended up apparently muzzling himself: “Economic interests must never take precedence over human rights in the dialogue with China,” Raja wrote.

Norway’s conservative government coalition, meanwhile, has also opted to allow the Chinese mobile phone and equipment giant Huawei to build out Norway’s mobile network at a time when Australia and the US have banned Huawei for fear of espionage and the lack of security cooperation with China. The government was also unusually quiet when Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died last year and when his long-detained wife Liu Xia was finally released from house arrest last summer. Foreign Minister Søreide was restrained when Human Rights Watch and later the UN’s race discrimination committee released their reports of the detentions in Xinjiang, saying only that they “awakened concern” and were “serious … if the claims in the reports are correct.” She also hastened to add that Chinese authorities have expressed concerns for the security challenges they face in Xinjiang because of “radicalization and violent extremism” among the Uyghurs and other minorities.

Call for more pressure on China
These are all issues that soon must be addressed and handled by a new Norwegian ambassador in Beijing. It won’t be easy, and critics at home in Norway are getting frustrated with their own government’s reluctance to take a tougher stance.

Aftenposten editorialized at the end of King Harald’s state visit to China that Norway should put harder pressure on China. The country “has long been a dictatorship, and under President Xi Jinping, the situation has become even worse. Ordinary and social media are more strongly controlled. The little that exists of a civilian society is being suffocated, religious minorities are brutally repressed, no country on earth has more political prisoners and weak developemt of a more independent court system is being reversed.”

At the same time, Aftenposten noted, China is becoming more important, both politically and economically. “China is important for the world, but the world is also important for China,” Aftenposten wrote. “They need access to western banking, universities and a lot else,” not least markets for their products. “Are human rights less important than trade regulations and the conflict over sovereignty of uninhabited islands between Vietnam and the Philippines,?” asked Aftenposten rhetorically. “Putting China under pressure is difficult, but not impossible. It can yield results. It’s all about the willingness to exert it.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund