Norway caught in squeeze over China

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Four years after finally ending a diplomatic freeze with China, Norway has found itself needing to choose sides in new Chinese conflicts, now related to China’s role in the Corona virus crisis. Norway wants to stay on good terms with everyone, but it’s not easy.

Norway and China ended a six-year diplomatic freeze in 2016 and Norway doesn’t want relations to become frosty once again. This photo was taken when King Harald was invited to re-visit China in 2018. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartement

Norway’s most important allies all back an independent probe of how and when the virus actually broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and how Chinese authorities dealt with it. China has been widely accused of not acting quickly enough, with local authorities even suppressing several doctors’ warnings that the new virus was spreading.

At least 29 countries and leaders including the prime ministers of Japan and Canada also have supported reinstatement of Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Organization (WHO), not least after Taiwan has been highly successful at controlling the virus despite its location close to the Chinese mainland. Since Taiwan is not a member of the UN (also because of pressure from China), Taiwan is left to rely on the goodwill of other countries to take part in UN-affiliated organizations like the WHO.

China predictably resists both efforts, continuing to claim that Taiwan is part of China while Taiwan considers itself to be its own independent and democratic entity, not beholden to the communist regime in Beijing. China also defends its handling of the Corona virus outbreak and considers itself a victim that needs support, not criticism, just like other countries to which the virus has spread.

Norway seeks a way out
Norway thus risked offending China once again if it went along with either supporting observer status for Taiwan at the WHO or if it backed the call of the EU, the US, Australia and scores of other countries to probe the virus’ Chinese outbreak.

Norwegian officials initially were non-committal before this week’s WHO meeting. They later told news service NTB that they “supported independent international reviews of both the virus’ outbreak and how it was handled internationally,” just not right now in the middle of the crisis. State Secretary Anne Grethe Erlandsen of the Conservative Party said any probe should wait until the pandemic was “at a bit of a distance.”

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Erlandsen said it was “important to learn, prevent and be best possibly prepared” if similar virus situations come up in the future. She said Norway did not, however, want any probe to be part of any rivalry between countries or groups of countries. Health Minister Bent Høie confirmed “the time wasn’t right” for an investigation now, even though the Norwegian government had no qualms about launching its own investigation into how it has handled the virus outbreak itself.

Fending off a new freeze
Norway thus remained caught in the squeeze between China and the African countries supporting it, and Norway’s own close allies like the US, Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who are more willing to stand up to China. China threatened Australia with economic reprisals after it promoted the probe proposal.

Norwegian officials clearly feared a similar response, leading to charges within Norway that the government remains far too soft on China since diplomatic relations were restored. Newspaper Aftenposten also editorialized over the weekend that Norway should support at least observer status for Taiwan at the WHO: “Taiwan’s efficient handling of the Corona virus is a good example of why the island should be included (at the WHO meeting),” wrote Aftenposten.

The Taiwan issue ended up being postponed indefinitely and the probe was also put off, with Aftenposten reporting that WHO members only agreed on a text that proposes an evaluation of the Corona response. The text lacks a time plan for when the evaluation will begin and its wording, according to Aftenposten, was vague enough that all countries attending the meeting could agree on it, including China.

‘Strong dissatisfaction’
Taiwan, meanwhile, expressed dissatisfaction that it was not invited to attend the virtual World Health Assembly (WHA), which serves as WHO’s decision-making body. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing “deep regret and strong dissatisfaction that the WHO secretariat has yielded to pressure from the Chinese government and continues to disregard the right to health of the 23 million people of Taiwan.”

WHO has also been at the center of debate over whether it’s too China-friendly. Norway maintains its support for the UN organization, also after US President Donald Trump lashed out at the WHO and threatened to cut off its funding. That has angered many in Norway, not least former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland who blasted Trump’s threats claiming that “the last thing we need now is to attack the WHO.” She maintained her support for the WHO and her criticism of Trump, also after he pointed to her this week as an example of a tough WHO leader who didn’t hesitate to criticize China during the SARS outbreak in 2003.

‘Face mask diplomacy’
Both China and Taiwan, meanwhile, have been donating millions of face masks, other protective garments for health care workers and forehead thermometers as both try to drum up goodwill of their own. Norwegian officials took receipt of large shipments from China of protective equipment against Corona infection in late March, part of what’s been called China’s “face mask diplomacy” around the world. Critics claim it’s all part of a charm offensive by Chinese officials who may come to expect gratitude in return.

Calls had already been going out, long before the Corona crisis hit, for Norwegian government officials to also speak up about ongoing allegations of China’s abuse of human rights, internment camps for restive minorities, invasive surveillance of the Chinese population and, most recently, threats against Sweden when Sweden criticized China over its incarceration of a Swedish-Chinese citizen who had published critical books about China in Hong Kong. Norway did finally support Sweden’s demand that Gui Minhai be freed, its first sign of subtle criticism of China in years. Critics in Norway have long accused Norwegian government officials of overlooking abuses in China in return for selling more salmon.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg met with Chinese tycoon Jack Ma during her official trip to China in the spring of 2017, after diplomatic relations had resume. PHOTO: NFD/Trond Viken

Now there’s concern over what China will demand after its donations, including those from captains of industry like Jack Ma. While professors and foreign policy experts claim the Chinese have effectively been buying influence, China’s ambassador to Norway has denied that.

In a lengthy exchange with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) published last weekend, Ambassador Yi Xianliang claims China has only the best intentions, simply wants to help other countries like Norway battle the Corona virus and in fact is reciprocating aid that it received from abroad when the virus first broke out in Wuhan.

“As we have said many times, the virus is a common enemy for all of humanity,” Yi told DN. “China is a victim, not a guilty party. It should be clear that the enemy is the virus, not China.” Yi also dismissed all theories that China is now exploiting weak economies around the world and not least the Corona crisis in the US to establish a “new world order” in which China gains increased influence while the US is down for the count.

“The US’ strength has contributed positively to world peace and development, and we hope to continue to see a strong and positive America,” Yi stated. He stressed that China simply wants the world to move away from a “Cold War mentality,” set out a course for “mutual cooperation and development,” and build a fellowship aimed at a common future.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund