There’s been lots of criticism directed at both China and Russia in Norwegian media this week, some of it coming from Norway’s own Jens Stoltenberg. He’s in his last year as secretary general of NATO, as speculation swirls whether he’ll eventually come home to be governor of Norway’s central bank.
It’s unlikely Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister from the Labour Party, will return to Norwegian politics. His friend and former foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, is due to take over as prime minister next week, and Stoltenberg was consciously absent from the recent election campaign. Commentators don’t think he’ll do anything to overshadow Støre, and he’s stayed out of domestic politics ever since leaving for Brussels in 2014.
The still-affable NATO boss has been talking tougher in recent weeks about international issues, though, and was surprisingly straightforward in an interview with Oslo newspaper Aftenposten this week. He said he wants NATO to talk more about the “threat” from China:
“China’s growth is changing the world,” Stoltenberg told Aftenposten. “There’s a lot that’s positive about that, but there are also some big challenges. They (Chinese officials) are using their economic and military power to threaten other countries, not least in the South China Sea. They make artificial islands and just move in. That changes the global balance of power.”
Back in the USA
Stoltenberg’s comments came during another visit to Washington DC this week, where he met with US President Joe Biden in the White House for the second time in just a few months. Aftenposten reported that Stoltenberg also had a busy day meeting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan. He spoke with US Secretary of State Tony Blinken on the phone.
China was high on the agenda, just like it was during the Trump Administration. Biden is a bigger supporter of international cooperation than Trump was, but seems to mostly be extending Trump’s hard line against China. That in turn is in line with national public opinion, where China has lost favour with the vast majority of Americans. China’s loss of friends in the US is mostly tied to suspected cyber attacks from China, Chinese authorities’ brutal crackdown on Hong Kong and human rights abuses elsewhere on mainland China. Aftenposten noted how another study by the Pew Research Center confirmed the Gallup poll, finding that only 9 percent of Americans view China as a partner. The rest see China as a competitor or even an enemy. China also gets blamed for jobs losses in the US.
Stoltenberg told Aftenposten that Europeans, and that includes Norwegians, are also more critical towards China. They don’t like, according to Stoltenberg, how China has put pressure on US allies like Canada and Australia. He thinks the crackdown on Hong Kong, once viewed as a thriving hub of finance and freedom, has played a big role.
“Many millions of people who lived in a form of democracy, don’t anymore,” Stoltenberg said. “I think it’s natural and good that people react to that.” Oppression of the Uighur minority has also hurt China in both the US and Europe. “There’s been more recognition that China is an authoritarian regime,” Stoltenberg said. “They use technology to control their own people in a way that no other regime has ever been able to do in the history of the world.”
This has all moved China higher up on NATO’s own agenda, not least, Stoltenberg said, because “China and Russia cooperate more and more. They exercise and operate more and more on a military basis.” That marks a big change since the Cold War decades of Sino-Soviet rivalry. Now both Russia and China, each run by authoritarian politicians, need to be on NATO’s radar, according to Stoltenberg. He said NATO’s relations with Russia, meanwhile, are at their “lowest point” since the Cold War ended.
“I think its wrong to say that we need to relate to Russia but not to China,” Stoltenberg said. He denies he’s contributing to “a negative spiral,” claiming he always aims for balanced communication. “But refusing to deal with China, which was NATO’s attitude until 2019, is wrong,” Stoltenberg said. “I believe China plays a role in our security. Then it plays a role for NATO.”
The US has already been deploying aircraft carriers and other Naval vessels to the South China Sea and especially the area around Taiwan, after repeated shows of force from China. Taiwan’s defense minister stated this week that Taiwan’s relations with Beijing are “the worst in 40 years,” after Chinese aggression has increased mightily in recent years. China still insists the island of Taiwan with its thriving democracy remains part of China itself, and many think China fears losing face over Taiwan’s independence. China’s problem is that the US and most other democracies around the world don’t want to see Taiwan taken over by China like Hong Kong was. Taiwan is also “strategically important for the US,” Øystein Tunsjø, a professor at the Institute for Defense Studies in Oslo, told Aftenposten. “It’s in the US’ interests to prevent Taiwan from becoming part of the People’s Republic of China.”
Nuclear concerns, and a controversial partnership
On Friday, Aftenposten also reported that satellite photos show unusual formations in Chinese desert areas that raise concerns about atomic weapons. The formations are believed to house underground silos where China can place missiles, and they’re the third set to be found this year. “The Chinese are building themselves up, for them it’s a sort of arms race,” Hans Kristensen, leader of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, told Aftenposten.
Aftenposten has also reported this week on concerns about Chinese influence in Norway as well. Critics have been uneasy for months over a relatively new “cooperation” between China’s leading Fudan University and the University of Oslo (UiO). In May, the Shanghai-based Fudan opened a European center for Chinese studies at UiO that aims “to serve as a bridge and a platform to promote academic cooperation between China and Europe.”
It was formerly based in Copenhagen, where Fudan’s rector said he hoped it would spur research “that can lead to a more balance understanding of China’s development.” Harald Bøckman, a retired professor and China scholar, told Aftenposten that it was one of several examples of how China can use research to promote its Communist Party and the state.
Given recent directives in China that call for more mandatory education about the party’s ideology, Bøckman hopes Fudan’s new Norwegian partners won’t disregard what China demands of its researchers. Others involved in the project at UiO claim it’s more important than ever to maintain cooperation with Chinese researchers. While some Members of Parliament are now skeptical about the center, its leader Mette Halskov Hansen thinks too many underestimate the level of knowledge and critical attitudes towards Chinese leaders in today’s China. The cooperation between UiO and Fudan can also be ended at any time.
Central bank job option
The 62-year-old Stoltenberg, meanwhile, will be leaving his post at NATO next year, not long after the current governor of Norway’s central bank (Norges Bank) is due to retire. That leaves a high-level job in Norway open for a man who started his career as a social economist and researcher, and has been on leave from Norway’s state statistics bureau SSB for 31 years.
That’s sparked plenty of speculation in Norway that Stoltenberg may come home to take over the job that also oversees the fortunes of Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund known as the Oil Fund. The fund has its own chief executive to manage investments, but the central bank governor’s post is over that, and Stoltenberg has plenty of international experience and a network that could come in handy. Stoltenberg could become a well-connected board chairman of the world’s largest investment fund, not just the boss of a relatively small central bank.
Stoltenberg has declined comment on the speculation, and Norges Bank has some highly qualified internal candidates for the post as well. His old friend and party comrade Jonas Gahr Støre, who already has vowed to use the Oil Fund in climate policy to help cut emissions, may also be seen as having a conflict of interest if he were to appoint Stoltenberg to the post.
It’s probably a matter of whether Stoltenberg would want the job as head of the central bank and Oil Fund. He’s also been tipped as a candidate to take over as UN Secretary General one day, but that job doesn’t seem to be available.