Six years ago the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo opened a rift between the two countries. Last month the governments of Norway and China unexpectedly announced that diplomatic relations had been fully restored.
Donald Trump’s impending presidency, and signs of considerable change in U.S. China policy, are likely to have been contributing geopolitical factors prompting Beijing to seek a solution. However, as both Chinese and Norwegian officials, including Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, noted, the normalization was mainly the result of years of painstaking diplomatic negotiations, in the form of a series of low-level meetings.
The news accompanied an unannounced visit to Beijing by the Norwegian foreign minister, Borge Brende, who met with Premier Li Keqiang.
The news is likely to have numerous positive economic after-effects for both countries, given that during the impasse, a bilateral free trade agreement was placed on hold and periodic disruptions to Norwegian salmon exports to China were reported. Norwegian energy and shipping firms are also likely to reap short-term benefits from the rapprochement.
Very shortly after the deal was announced, it was reported that restarting the FTA talks would be a priority, and that a Norwegian government delegation would return to Beijing this spring.
“Through meticulous and numerous conversations, the two sides have, over the last years, reached a level of trust that allows for resumption of a normal relationship,” they said in a joint declaration, which stated that Norway was “fully conscious of the position and concerns of the Chinese side” over the prize.
Looking beyond the spheres of business and trade, this diplomatic deal is also likely to have significant effects on Arctic cooperation and joint partnerships, given Norway’s position and Beijing’s expanded interests in the circumpolar north.
The post-Nobel Prize dispute has frequently spilled over into Arctic affairs in the past half-decade. In September 2014, Oslo turned down a request by China to build a large radar antenna on Svalbard (although China’s Yellow River research station at Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard was unaffected by the diplomatic troubles). Also during that year there was a controversial, and unsuccessful, bid by Chinese entrepreneur Huang Nubo to purchase Arctic land in Norway, including in Svalbard. In October 2015, three Chinese naval vessels conducted a goodwill tour of the Nordic countries to further demonstrate Beijing’s developing Arctic diplomatic interests, but there were no stops in Norway.
In the four-part agreement between Beijing and Oslo that officially restored diplomatic ties, Polar issues were listed among the matters for future “win-win cooperation.” Not only would this include the Arctic, but also Antarctica, where Norway has also had a longstanding presence and where China has also augmented its exploration and scientific interests of late. In the Arctic alone, there are several areas that could be subject to greater bilateral cooperation in the future, like research cooperation, shipping and regime-building.
It is fair to assume much of the diplomatic negotiations over the years have consisted of trying to merge the contents of the proposed public and secret statements into the one mutually acceptable, although in parts ambiguous, statement published last month.
In the statement, Norway said it “fully respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, attaches high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns, will not support actions that undermine them, and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations.”
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in a statement that “Norway deeply reflected upon the reasons bilateral mutual trust was harmed, and had conscientious, solemn consultations with China about how to improve bilateral relations.”
However, John Peder Egenaes, secretary general of Amnesty International in Norway , is concerned about the agreement. “We are worried about some of the wording in the declaration,” he said in an interview. “If this sentence means the Norwegian government becomes subservient, we will criticize them for it. Time will tell. Human rights have been a foreign policy priority for Norway, and in particular support for champions of human rights. This policy has to apply to China, as much as to any other place.”
Stein Tonnesson, a historian and former director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, on the other hand, said the agreement was “of huge importance to Norway” because of the commercial potential. Norway’s salmon industry stands to benefit significantly.
Much of the wording of the agreement is in broad enough terms that there can and will be copious analyses to follow as to how much diplomatic ground was ceded by each government. For example, the third paragraph of the agreement, which outlines Norwegian support for the Chinese sovereignty and core interests, also stated that Oslo would “do its best to avoid future damage to bilateral relations,” a phrase which could be interpreted as the Norwegian government acknowledging a degree of responsibility for the original incident in 2010.
Mr. Tonnesson said he doubted that the agreement would impair Norway’s reputation as an advocate for human rights, but he added that the timing — weeks after the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States — was significant.
A commentary in the People’s Daily noted Foreign Minister Wang’s view that Oslo had the chance to “deeply reflect on its mistakes” before the agreement was completed; however the Norwegian side emphasized rather the fact that Oslo had avoided being pressured into apologizing for the actions of an independent Nobel Committee.
The overall impact on trade, even in the seafood sectors, has not been very profound, and according to Marc Lanteigne, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, bilateral trade hit record levels in 2015.”
China and Norway Normalize Relations, written by Tor Kjolberg