Wang Min, China’s ambassador to Norway since 2016, is due to bid farewell King Harald V on Friday and leave the country, just after Norwegian intelligence agencies have branded China as a major security threat. The Chinese Embassy in Oslo has refuted and harshly criticized the warnings, while the Norwegian government has also been criticized for remaining strangely silent in the wake of the storm.
Wang’s embassy’s angry reaction to police intelligence agency PST’s warnings about China and against doing business with Chinese tech firm Huawei have also been criticized. Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized that the embassy’s reaction revealed China’s “arrogance and immature relation to public debate.” That, according to the paper, offers even more reason for being uneasy about dealing with China, not less.
The Chinese Embassy in Oslo also was unhappy when a major hacking attack on Norwegian tech firm Visma was linked last week to China as well, calling the claim “a cliché.” The embassy has also been upset that not just PST is warning against China: Norway’s military intelligence agency E-tjenesten reported in its annual assessment of threats facing Norway that it also viewed China and Russia as among the largest. Both are capable of launching advanced cyber attacks on the Norwegian government, organizations and businesses, E-tjenesten believes.
Wang is thus leaving Norway in the midst of new tension between Norway and China, just a year after he played a major role in finally ending a six-year diplomatic freeze between the two countries. It started in 2010, when China blamed Norway for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao, and blocked nearly all official contact between Chinese and Norwegian officials, along with hurting trade.
Dealing with the threats
The question now is how the Norwegian government plans to deal with both the security threats China allegedly poses and the warnings against letting Huawei be involved in development of Norway’s 5G network. In many ways Norway is caught between appeasing its biggest ally, the US (which doesn’t want any of its allies to do business with Huawei), and wanting to boost trade and remain friendly with China (which offers huge markets for seafood and other Norwegian exports).
“It’s completely natural for the government to respond to how it’s following up on PST’s (and E-tjenesten’s) concerns,” Aftenposten wrote. Solberg’s justice minister, Tor Mikkel Wara, has earlier confirmed uneasiness about the danger of espionage against Norwegian businesses and institutions, and doing business with Huawei in particular. The state still owns 54 percent of the shares in Telenor, which already has been doing business with Huawei for years.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), however, reported in a lengthy article on Huawei over the weekend about how Norwegian authorities and mobile phone companies have long been passive about the potential consequences of letting a company like Huawei, which is legally obligated to share information with Chinese authorities if asked to, gain access to Norway’s mobile communications infrastructure. Huawei, meanwhile, claims it has never shared information about its customers and won’t do so in the future.
Varog Kervarec, editor of Inside Telecom, wrote in newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend that Norwegian authorities are “demanding obedient silence from mobile companies in the debate around Huawei.” Kervarec claims that hurts the debate, arguing that there should be open debate over principles that protect Norwegian values, which include openness itself. While the government ministry in charge of transport and communications has held meetings with Telenor, Telia and Ice, Kervarec claims they’ve all been muzzled regarding problems and possible solutions discussed. He says an open debate is needed also to understand what Norway may be turning down if it complies with the US’ request to not do business with Huawei.
There was some government response earlier this week, when one of the leaders of the government parties, the Liberals’ Trine Skei Grande, told DN that her skepticism about Huawei “is still there.” Nothing about future dealings with Huawei, however, has been concluded, she said.
Nikolai Astrup of the Conservatives, who was recently named as Norway’s new government minister in charge of digitalization, told DN he couldn’t say what security evaluations were made by the former left-center government when it allowed Telenor to let Huawei help build its 4G network. “When we now start building out the 5G network, the government will make demands related to responsible and good security, robustness and preparedness,” Astrup said. “The government has a good dialog about network security.”
Huawei urged to spin off international operations
Henning Kristoffersen, who has written books about China’s economy and has promoted the need for good relations, wrote a commentary in DN on Wednesday, in which he thinks Huawei should spin off its international operations in order to establish credible distance from Beijing.
“Everyone knows that a boycott of Huawei will have negative consequences for the Norway-China relation,” Kristoffersen wrote. “China’s threats are unnecessary.” For Norway, he wrote, it would be wisest to find a way forward “where we won’t be forced to choose between two of the world’s superpowers.” The US has also been caught spying and demanding information from US companies. China may not be much different.
As Wang flies out of all the fuss, Solberg and her government may appreciate one thing: Wang at least honoured protocol and was due for a formal audience with the king on Friday before leaving, unlike one of his predecessors who left Norway without saying goodbye at the palace in the heat of anger over the Nobel Peace Prize, and in direct defiance of diplomacy.