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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Norway urged to demand more of China

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Norwegian government was under pressure on all sides when China’s foreign minister paid a quick visit to Oslo at the end of a European tour last week. Critics think Norway hasn’t been nearly strong enough in challenging China on a wide range of issues, or following through on warnings about China from NATO, the EU, the US and Norway’s own national security authorities.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt had her first meeting with China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang in Oslo on Friday. She called China “an important partner” and claimed the two had “an open and good discussion on a broad set of issues,” but admitted the two “do not always agree.”  PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“Norway looks like the country in the west with the most China-friendly policies,” Ola Elvestuen, a Member of Parliament from the Liberal Party, told newspaper Aftenposten. The Liberals have been especially wary of China for many years, and both he and party fellows took part in demonstrations Friday outside the government’s guest house where the talks with China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang were taking place.

“It’s important that democracies stand together against the expansion of authoritarian nations,” Elvestuen added. Also out demonstrating against China were organizations including Amnesty International and various groups protesting Chinese aggression against Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Elvestuen isn’t alone in viewing Norway as far too meek regarding China’s recent crackdown on democracy and self-rule in Hong Kong (in violation of Britain’s handover agreement of 1997), its ongoing internment and harsh treatment of more than a million minority Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang, its strict control over Tibet and constant threats against Taiwan. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin’s talks with both his Norwegian counterpart and Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre on Friday took place just after another Chinese drone circled Taiwan and 13 Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA). The Philippines have also resorted to placing territorial markers in the South China Sea, reports AP, after more than 100 Chinese vessels allegedly violated its borders.

Qin’s visit also came just days after Norway’s national security authority (NSM) had delivered yet another report warning of how China and Russia continue to pose the greatest espionage threat. In its report on security trends through the rest of this decade, NSM expects China will also engage in “more offensive and confrontational foreign policy.” China’s willingness, NSM wrote, “to take on the costs of a higher conflict level with the West” is rising.

Criticism has also been rising over China’s refusal so far to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year and skepticism over a role it’s trying to take on as peace broker. Some commentators in Norway have called China the least credible peace broker in the world. The US and EU, both of which are Norway’s most important allies and trading partners, have expressed irritation with China for failing to condemn the invasion.

Earlier visits by Chinese authorities to Oslo have also sparked protests, like here in 2019. The Corona pandemic suspended such visits, but now China is on the road again. PHOTO: Venstre

The EU Commission also reportedly wants sanctions against Chinese companies accused of selling equipment that Russia can use against Ukraine. While in Europe last week, Qin warned both the EU and Norway against setting off another Cold War. Pitting democracy against authoritarian regimes can be dangerous, he suggested, and lead to another Cold War that can come at an even higher price than the last one, he warned, also for Norway.

Qin arrived in Oslo claiming, as has China’s ambassador to Norway Hou Yue, that “we consistently choose peace over war.” His visit came rather suddenly, added on to a series of other courtesy calls Qin was making in Germany and France. Qin met criticism and opposition in Germany, to which he responded with warnings against trade restrictions on Chinese companies.

Qin also needed to carry out some damage control, though, after China’s ambassador to France had raised questions about the sovereignty of former Soviet republics. That infuriated countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the EU’s foreign policy leader Josep Borrell called the Chinese envoy’s comments “unacceptable.” China’s foreign ministry eventually felt a need to confirm that China “respects the sovereignty” of countries that had been part of the Soviet Union and stress that China had been among the first to recognize them.

NATO’s Norwegian secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has, meanwhile, long been warning of the threats China poses to freedom and democracy. He made a big impression after warning Norwegian companies and employers earlier this year about the risks of doing business with China. The huge country has already put many countries into a position of economic dependence, Stoltenberg claims, that can be used to achieve political goals. China has bought up or into a large number of Norwegian companies over the years, while Norway and China have long tried to negotiate a free trade agreement. That process, however, has been marred by disruptions and calls have been going out to scrap it.

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister himself, has said that his “personal wake-up call” over China came 13 years ago, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo and China responded with a diplomatic freeze that lasted for six years. Stoltenberg refused to yield to China’s demands for an apology or to its terms for ending the freeze.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg made a splash back home in Oslo earlier this year, when he warned Norwegian companies about the risks of doing business with China. Chinese authorities were not pleased. PHOTO: NHO/Alf Simensen

“I saw up close how China tried to force Norway to apologize, because they thought it was unacceptable that we had a Nobel Committee that supported the opposition in China,” Stoltenberg told Aftenposten earlier this year. Stoltenberg rejected China’s terms for restoring diplomatic and economic relations “and I still think that was the right decision.”

It was only after the subsequent Conservatives-led government agreed not to meddle in what China insists are its “internal affairs” that the freeze ended. The agreement finally signed between China and Norway in 2016 was described by some as nothing less than “humiliating” for Norway, while Stoltenberg still believes that “we must not limit our opportunities to criticize human rights violations in China and China’s way of operating, because it will mount a bigger and bigger challenge to our security and our values.” Norway’s own intelligence agencies continue to warn that both China and Russia pose the biggest cyber and espionage threats to Norway.

Now Norway has another Labour-led government, with a prime minister who’s long been one of Stoltenberg’s closest colleagues and friends. Prime Minister Støre, however, hasn’t always seemed to heed all the warnings from Stoltenberg, the EU, the US and others, not even after Stoltenberg provocatively claimed during a meeting in Japan last winter that “what we’re witnessing in Europe today (Russia’s war on Ukraine) can happen in East Asia tomorrow.” Stoltenberg also claimed that China seeks to control critical infrastructure and spread false information while building up its own military forces including nuclear weapons, bullying its neighbours and threatening Taiwan. Many other national leaders and defense experts view China as a bigger threat than Russia.

Jens Stoltenberg and Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre have been close colleagues and friends for years. Støre and his Labour-Center government, though, don’t always seem to be following Stoltenberg’s advice regarding relations with China. PHOTO: Regjeringen.no

Yet both Støre and his foreign minister, Anniken Huitfeldt, have opted for a more conciliatory approach to all the concerns, and to China itself. In March, Aftenposten reported how Støre had congratulated China’s new prime minister by writing that China’s support and leadership are “necessary” if the world is to meet global challenges. He stressed how Norway and China have common interests in many areas and how Norway was among the world’s first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China back in 1949. He didn’t mention the war in Ukraine or China’s refusal so far to condemn it, nor was there any mention of human rights concerns. Støre also wrote that he wants closer ties between Norway and China.

The letter was quickly bashed by the Liberal and Greens parties, who also noted that China lacks free elections and is an “absolute dictatorship,” so there was no need for Støre to congratulate Li Qiang. The prime minister’s office dismissed the criticism, calling the letter simply part of an “international practice” of contact between countries and not “acknowledgment of all sides” of China’s policies. Others dismissed the letter as another blunder by Støre, whose government has tumbled in public opinion polls and often been referred to as being in “deep crisis.”

On the agenda at Friday’s meetings with China’s new foreign minister were bilateral relations, climate, the war in Ukraine and human rights, according to a Norwegian government on the defensive. Huitfeldt claimed after her meeting with Qin that in addition to discussing less controversial issues like the green transition, they did have “extensive discussions on human rights, including our concerns related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong. We also discussed the situation in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific region, including Taiwan.” No conclusions were revealed, but Huitfeldt conceded in her official remarks that Norway and China “have some issues where we do not always agree. I appreciate this openness.”

Newspaper Aftenposten had editorialized a few days before Qin arrived in Oslo that Huitfeldt should flat out ask him what’s happening with the Uighurs, since China has banned their right to live in line with their cultural heritage. They’ve been under constant surveillance, confined, subjected to “re-education” programs and physically abused and tormented, according to some who’ve escaped. China, however, refers to Uighurs as “terrorists” who must be contained. Again, details of the talks were Qin were not revealed, but Qin consistently maintains that China’s policies are fueled by “internal security” interests, not oppression. “Questions tied to Xinxiang, Hong Kong and Tibet have nothing to do with human rights,” he claimed in Oslo. “They have to do with China’s sovereignty, security and development.”

Qin also reminded and thanked Norway (putting its leaders in an awkward position) for having supported its “One China” policy that has excluded Taiwan from international organizations for years. Taiwan had a “Representative Office” in Oslo but it closed down after the diplomatic freeze with China thawed. Qin claimed China merely seeks a “peaceful reunion” with Taiwan, even though, as Aftenposten has pointed out, Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China. It’s been self-governing since the revolution in 1949, when the losing side fled to the island off China’s southeast coast. Only a small percentage of its population wants to become part of China.

There was no mention after the talks about the cyber and espionage threats China poses to Norway, which Norway’s own intelligence agencies have placed high and openly on their agendas. Støre, in his meeting with Qin, instead stressed the two countries’ “close cooperation” in many areas, especially in developing technology that can improve the environment. Støre, a seasoned diplomat himself who served as foreign minister in Stoltenberg’s government, even went so far as to call China “an essential player in international politics, international climate cooperation and the global economy.”

It was only in discussions about what she called Russia’s “unprovoked invasion of Ukraine” where Huitfeldt appeared to get tougher. “Peace and security cannot be achieved until Ukraine’s sovereignty is fully respected and territorial integrity is restored,” she said, an indirect slam at the Chinese envoy’s provocative statements last month. She said she urged China “to continue its contact with Russia” to reduce nuclear threats “and end this war.”

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre welcomed China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang to Oslo on Friday. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Anne Kristin Hjukse

Støre, who spent around an hour with Qin, claimed it was “important that Norway and China maintain a continuous, sound and broad dialogue.” He noted that Norway “is concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the development in Hong Kong,” adding that Norway will “continue to support the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and I encouraged China to do so as well.”

In welcoming Qin, though, he stressed that the visit gave him “the opportunity to raise questions and issues that are of high importance to Norway.” Bilateral relations, climate and the war in Ukraine were also on the agenda, according to the prime minister’s office.

Qin called Norway a “friendly” country after his meetings in Oslo. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Anne Kristin Hjukse

The meetings arguably put both the Norwegians and Chinese in awkward positions, since Chinese officials bristle at anyone challenging their authority and the Norwegians like to be seen as outspoken champions of human rights and democracy. That can explain why the government’s own website devoted very little space to the meeting with Qin, featuring no photos of the Chinese foreign minister  with either Støre or Huitfeldt on the front pages of either the foreign ministry’s section of that of the Office of the Prime Minister. That seemed to downplay the meetings themselves.

Hans Jørgen Gåsemyr, a senior researcher at the Oslo-based foreign policy institute NUPI, expressed some sympathy for Huitfeldt, who can’t be as outspoken as foreign minister as she was before becoming part of government. “It’s difficult to be a politician and handle policy for a government,” Gåsemyr told NRK. “It’s much easier to be in opposition, or outside the government, and be able to express strong principles.”

“We can’t get away from the fact that we are a small country with some major interests that has everything to lose if the world stops negotiating and trading,” Gåsemyr added. That’s why Støre and Huitfeldt were still keen to meet with Qin, maintain contact, and hope for the best.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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