NEWS ANALYSIS: When Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg walked into the NATO summit in Brussels last week, she’d already gained more backbone for her government’s own delicate dealings with China. New US President Joe Biden’s willingness to confront and criticize power-hungry Chinese leaders at the G7 summit the day before carried over to the subsequent gathering of NATO’s leaders, and then Biden also had a “productive” summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. All of the high-level talks provided relief and some strength for Solberg’s small but wealthy country.
There’d been lots of concern in Norwegian media in advance of the summits that they could leave Norway caught in a squeeze between superpowers. While the US is widely viewed as the world’s only remaining superpower since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been rapidly building up its military and responding to what it views as aggression from NATO operations in neighboring Norway. China has also built up its military and been throwing its rapidly increasing economic weight around the world for several years. Neither Russian nor Chinese leaders seem capable of tolerating criticism or allowing their authority to be questioned. When they are hit by criticism, it can help if the critics are unified in major blocs like NATO or the G7.
Both the G7 and NATO issued relatively strong statements last week, especially against China. The G7 leaders from Canada, the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Japan called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in Xinjiang (where China’s Uighur minority has been persecuted for years) and in Hong Kong, where China is destroying the former British colony’s democracy. The G7 also urged “peace and stability” around Taiwan, where China has markedly stepped up its threats and intimidation. China responded by accusing the G7 of “political manipulation” and interference in China’s internal affairs, among other offenses.
Then came last week’s declaration from NATO, which also mentioned China for the first time and in critical terms. NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who served as Norway’s prime minister prior to Solberg, had already come out hard against China, claiming that its attitude towards other countries is “completely unacceptable.” China has often been accused of bullying, and now it was Stoltenberg telling Oslo newspaper Aftenposten just before the NATO meeting began that China “pressures and oppresses countries that don’t behave just as they want.”
Stoltenberg experienced that himself after the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which operates entirely independently of the Norwegian government, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao. That set off a six-year diplomatic freeze between Norway and China that didn’t end until 2016, when Solberg’s government finally went along with an agreement in which it promised not to meddle in what China considers its internal affairs. Norway has since come under lots of criticism that it caved in to the Chinese in order to repair relations and resume trade.
“They (Chinese leaders) wanted us to apologize and sign lots of agreements, and they reacted very negatively when we wouldn’t go along with that,” Stoltenberg told Aftenposten. He noted how the governments of Canada and Australia have also been subjected to similar intimidation.
Both he and other NATO leaders stressed that cooperation with the Chinese is important, not least within climate issues and disarmament. “But it’s also very important to understand the security and political challenges posed by China’s growth,” Stoltenberg warned. “The US has been concerned about that and I have been concerned about that.”
When the NATO meeting ended, Norway was among all the nations going along with a declaration that mentioned China for the first time ever, marking both strong opposition to how China’s assertive behaviour posed “systematic challenges” to the rules-based international world order, while also keeping channels open for “constructive dialogue.” NATO pointed to China’s development of a nuclear arsenal and new rocket systems, and to how it has cooperated with Russia.
Norway, which shares a northern border with Russia, has long been keen to remain good neighbours. Norway also remains eager to do business with China and hasn’t wanted to jeopardize the diplomatic relations that were restored in 2016 after the six-year freeze. Despite Norway’s concerns over China’s human rights abuses and violations of the handover treaty China entered into with Great Britain over the future of Hong Kong, Solberg’s government has been careful not to violate its own agreement with China’s authoritarian leaders.
There’s ongoing criticism within Norway, however, that Solberg and a majority in Parliament have been far too timid in subsequent dealings with Chinese officials, and too reluctant to openly criticize China’s alleged genocide against its Uighur minority, its recent violent crackdowns on Hong Kong’s democracy and ongoing threats against Taiwan. Solbergs’ Conservative Party’s youth organization, Unge Høyre, views China as a threat to Norwegian values and wants its own government to scrap the “normalization” agreement from 2016. There’s been some alarm over increasing Chinese investment in Norwegian companies, as recently documented by Aftenposten. Solberg and Norwegian business organizations have also been accused of being more keen to sell salmon to China, for example, than adhere to principle.
That’s quietly begun to change in recent months. In addition to some recent talks that touched on human right issues, negotiations that began in 2008 on a free trade agreement with China appear to have stalled once again. Newspaper Aftenposten recently reported that Norway could be viewed as caving in to China if it struck a free trade deal with the country’s highly controversial leaders now. Parliament recessed for the summer on Friday and won’t reconvene until October, after which Norway may have a new government pending results of the national election in September. Prospects for a free trade agreement with China right now are dim.
Norway also quietly attached itself last spring to EU sanctions imposed against China, as a reaction to how Chinese authorities persecute minorities and allegedly have imprisoned millions in the equivalent of concentration camps. Norway didn’t publicize the move and later explained it as part of Norway’s tradition of simply following the EU’s sanction regime. China responded with sanctions of its own against various European politicians, activists and researchers but, noted newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), surprisingly didn’t punish Norway, too. DN wrote that it looked like China was actually shielding Norway, perhaps because it didn’t want to jeopardize trade talks.
The Norwegian government also, however, recently invested in more real estate on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard that Norway controls under an international treaty. Newspaper Klassekampen reported how it bought three hotels, residential and retail buildings and other tourism-related enterprises from Hurtigruten Svalbard for NOK 690 million. “It’s important that Norway extends its grip” on Svalbard, where both Russia and China are keen on doing the same. Both countries expressed interest in buying up rights to coal resources on Svalbard last winter. Norway already owns the land on which the coal sits.
There’s no question that Norway remains nervous about its relations with both China and Russia, and strives to strike a balance of its own, both in the Arctic (where China is eager to establish itself and Russia recently took over as head of the Arctic Council) and on home turf.
There was great relief in Norway after seemingly successful meetings between the US’ new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov at the Arctic Council meeting in Reykjavik last month and between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. The US and Russia presidents seemed keen on a fresh start, both departing with thumbs-up signals and Biden commenting that “it’s always best to meet face to face.”
Lavrov, meanwhile, has stated that Norway and Russia “have a good neighbourly relation” despite all Russia’s complaints about US- and NATO troops on Norwegian soil. It’s more important than ever that there are open lines between the US and Russia to ward off any dangerous episodes in the Arctic, where both are active. Both have concerns about China’s interest in the Arctic and there were expressions of optimism when Biden’s and Putin’s meeting was over.
Solberg remains reluctant to offend China, insisting last week that Norway still has its “own position” on China. “We see the security challenges China represents,” she told Aftenposten after the NATO meeting, “but NATO can’t take on the role of being the world’s police.” She noted that concerns about China’s human rights violations can be dealt with at the UN Security Council, and climate issues can be handled through the Paris Agreement. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University in New York, agreed, telling newspaper Klassekampen last weekend that NATO shouldn’t get involving in the rivalry between the US and China. He warned European leaders against following the US with any hard confrontation with China.
The declarations made at both the G7- and NATO summits can help Norway, though. Norway can at least lean on them when advocating human rights and democratic issues that China dislikes. As Aftenposten reported, Europe is in the process of mounting a common front in its relations with China, which now has a steadily more negative reputation according to a a new study by the Pew Institute. Norway can gain from that, too.
Solberg told Aftenposten after the NATO meeting that she remains a strong believer in “open dialogue with difficult regimes, instead of closed doors.” She praised the NATO declaration, though, because it takes a dual approach of opposing China’s recent behaviour and its challenges to the “rules-based international world order” while also seeing “constructive dialogue.” She’s also well-aware that NATO has strong support among Norwegians in general, with a recent poll showing that fully 68 percent of Norwegians would vote in favour of NATO membership today, only 22 percent oppose it and 9 percent were undecided.
“NATO’s strength as a military alliance depends on political unity and confidential dialogue,” Solberg said. “It’s important that allies consult one another before important decisions are made. I think this NATO meeting is evidence of that.”