NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt declared on Wednesday that China has been putting “unacceptable” political pressure on Lithuania. It’s the closest Norway has come to criticizing China after a long diplomatic freeze of its own finally ended, but it comes just as Huitfeldt is also being “shamed” for not protesting the pending extradition of Julian Assange to the US.
Norway can often feel caught in the middle between its “most important ally,” the US, on the one side and both an important trading partner, China, and neighbouring Russia on the other. As tensions rise between the US and China and the US and Russia, the pressure on small countries like Norway and Lithuania can hit the boiling point.
Lithuania has recently been feeling the heat from China, which has been accused of bullying the small but fiercely independent Lithuania. After Lithuania stood up to threats from China and allowed Taiwan to set up its own representative office in the country’s capital of Vilnius, it’s been subjected to China’s fury. China maintains that Taiwan already is part of China and should not be recognized as its own thriving democracy independent of Beijing.
To punish Lithuania, China has halted all imports of goods from Lithuania, also those produced by multinational companies in Lithuania. Last week Lithuania also had to announce that its own diplomatic mission in China would have to “operate remotely … pending China’s decision to renew the accreditation of Lithuanian diplomats in China.”
In short, China has been making life as difficult as possible for the Lithuanians, to a degree that now even Norway is reacting. Norway had its own conflict with China when one of China’s foremost human rights activists received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. That set off a six-year diplomatic freeze that was only resolved when the two countries signed an agreement not to meddle in each others’ internal affairs. The agreement has since been criticized in Norway, for making the Norwegian government too reluctant to challenge China for its rising aggression around the world. That’s why it’s significant that Huitfeldt spoke out this week.
“We have great understanding that the conflict with China is demanding for Lithuania,” Huitfeldt stated in a written response to a question from the Greens Party in the Norwegian Parliament. MP Nora Heyerdahl had wanted to know what the Norwegian government is doing to support Lithuania, and whether China’s treatment of Lithuania would have any consequences for Norway’s long-stalled negotiations with China on a possible free trade agreement.
“We have expressed our support for Lithuania both bilaterally,” added Huitfeldt, and “within the framework” of a Nordic-Baltic cooperation agreement.
“It’s unacceptable that China is using unwarranted political pressure and punitive measures against Lithuania,” Huitfeldt continued. She noted that the EU Commission (from which Lithuania has support as an EU member) is now charting the actual trade obstacles (mounted by China), before taking the case to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Huitfeldt said Norway will closely follow the complaints against China likely to be filed at the WTO.
“It’s also extremely unfortunate that Chinese authorities have put major limitations on Lithuania’s embassy in Beijing,” Huitfeldt stated. “We expect China to live up to its obligations under the Vienna Convention regarding diplomatic treaties.”
It remained unclear how China’s treatment of Lithuania would affect Norway’s own ongoing free trade negotiations with China. “An open and rules-based system for world trade is of fundamental interest for a small, export-oriented economy like Norway’s,” Huitfeldt said. She noted, however, that halting free trade negotiations with China “would not help improve relations between China and Lithuania,” but rather contribute towards “further polaralizing” international politics.
Tactics may backfire
At the same time, China’s agressive tactics against Lithuania raise doubts about China’s own respect for and willingness to abide by international rules. That can ultimately backfire on China, when it resorts to such bullying. Norway has also spoken out, if carefully, against how China has broken its promises in the Hong Kong handover agreement of 1997 (by brutally cracking down on the lively democracy and openness that made Hong Kong such an important world trading center) and over China’s brutal treatment of its minorities. Chinese rulers beholden to the dictatorial Xi Jinping are widely accused of genocide against the country’s Uighur population.
While Huitfeldt continues Norway’s efforts to maintain “engagement and cooperation, also with China” as a means of “addressing the biggest challenges facing international society,” she also remains firmly committed to cooperation with the US. The Lithuania issue is one of two that have illustrated Norway’s often awkward position when trying to stay on good terms with much bigger countries, not least the US.
On December 10, the very day that two journalists were being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, a court in London went along with the US’ request to extradite Julian Assange. Back in 2010, the Wikileaks founder brought the world news of how the US had carried out war crimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The documentation of the war crimes came, however, from classified documents that embarrassed the US, and it’s responded by charging Assange with treason.
A UN group has called on all UN member states to demand that Assange be released from custody in Great Britain. Assange’s supporters point to the same freedom of expression and freedom of the press that won Nobel Peace Prizes for journalists Dmitry Muratov of Russia and Maria Ressa of the Philippines, with Ressa even nominated for her Nobel Prize by the man who’s now Norway’s prime minister and Huitfeldt’s boss, Jonas Gahr Støre.
Instead, claimed the leader of Norway’s Reds Party, Bjørnar Moxnes, Huitfeldt “is condoning that our closest allies (Great Britain and the US) are condemning Assange to die in prison because he published truthful information about the US’ and NATO-countries’ war crimes.” Moxnes told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday that he thinks Huitfeldt’s refusal to even comment on the looming extradition of Assange is “a shame for Norway and a betrayal of freedom of expression and human rights.”
‘Not natural for me to comment…’
While Huitfeldt spoke out against China, she refused to criticize the US. “It’s not natural for me to comment on independent legal processes in Great Britain,” Huitfeldt wrote in a separate response to questions about Assange from Moxnes. “Norway expects that Great Britain, the USA and all other countries uphold their international human rights obligations.”
She went on to state that in general, “protection of journalists, human rights defenders and others (voicing their opinions) has high priority in Norwegian foreign policy. Freedom of expression is, along with a free and critical press, the cornerstone of any democracy.” She added that freedom of the press and expression are crucial for access to information and holding authorities accountable.
“I’m concerned that freedom of expression and independent media are under rising pressure internationally, also in established democracies,” Huitfeldt stated. Moxnes was not impressed.
“There are lots of authoritarian regimes that jail and abuse their own whistle-blowers and journalists, but the US is alone in going outside its own borders and charging other countries’ citizens for journalistic operations that are completely legal here in Europe,” Moxnes responded. “If Huitfeldt accepts that, she’s also accepting that other authoritarian superpowers can do the same.”
He also equated her lack of response to the Assange case to “an assault on the UN’s human rights system,” just as Norway is about to take over temporary leadership of the UN Security Council in January. Moxnes intends to complain further to Støre himself: “If he doesn’t stand up to the US’ persecution of WikiLeaks and Assange now, the government’s claims about freedom of expression and human rights in other countries will be little more than worthless, foggy babble.”
Huitfeldt, who represents the Labour Party, declined comment on Moxnes’ views. Her predecessor from the Conservative Party, Ine Eriksen Søreide, earlier refused to comment on the Assange case, too.