China-Norway relations remain frosty

2013-10-28 12:51
Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Kota Endo, AFP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Kota Endo, AFP)

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Beijing - Mainly associated with conflict resolution, foreign assistance and cozy Scandinavian prosperity, Norway makes an odd target for China's ire.

Yet for three years, Beijing has frozen relations with Oslo since a committee appointed by the Norwegian parliament awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, deeply embarrassing China's leaders.

Diplomatic ties have been gutted, meetings cancelled and economic ties hamstrung by an unofficial partial embargo on Norwegian salmon and a freeze on trade talks.

The protracted snit shows the lengths Beijing will go to punish other nations for offenses or perceived slights. It's one of several relentless spats China has maintained with countries as varied as Japan and Lithuania, aimed at winning concessions and discouraging criticism.

China considers such retaliation the best way to draw attention to "issues that they consider core interests that other states do not at first easily grasp," said Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese politics at New York's Columbia University.

Yet, such fits of pique also come at a price. Maintaining a grudge against Norway over Liu reminds other countries of China's poor human rights record, even while Beijing is seeking to be taken seriously on international stage.

China is seen as defining its interests all too narrowly in a way that upsets the usual give-and-take among nations, said Boston University China scholar Joseph Fewsmith.

"I think China hurts its reputation. China needs to think more about providing the public goods that maintain the international system," Fewsmith said.

The spat with Norway entered the news again this month when the installation of a new Norwegian government offered an opportunity to end the rift. Instead, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson demanded Norway take "concrete action to create conditions for improving and developing bilateral relations".

"Whoever tied the ring around the tiger's neck must untie it," Hua Chunying told reporters, using a familiar Chinese expression to apportion blame.

But China has not said what it wants Norway to do. While the Nobel is awarded in Oslo by the parliament-appointed committee, the Norwegian government has no direct say in who gets it. At the time of the award, Beijing bitterly accused Norway of insulting China by interfering in its internal affairs and glorifying a criminal.

Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison after co-authoring a document calling for sweeping changes to China's one-party political system. His wife has also been placed under illegal house arrest and his brother-in-law jailed on what supporters say are trumped-up fraud charges.

Looking forward

Norway's Foreign Ministry declined to respond to specific questions about China ties, but spokesperson Svein Michelsen said Oslo is hopeful of better relations.

"Norway's new foreign Minister, Mr Borge Brende, has confirmed that re-establishing good relations with China is a key priority and will pursue the available opportunities toward this end," Svein Michelsen said.

Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, says China expects some at least symbolic act of contrition, although he didn't say exactly what form that should take.

"We find it difficult to forgive these foreigners who support [Liu's] views insulting the Chinese people," said Yan, a hardliner whose views closely mirror those of Chinese leaders.

China's retaliation seeks to exact real economic pain. According to the Norwegian Seafood Council, Norway's share of China's salmon market plunged from 92% in 2010 to 29% in the first half of this year. While the Norwegian salmon industry remains robust, operators are wary of what this portends as China's appetite for salmon grows.

Along with barriers on Norwegian salmon imports, Beijing has abandoned year’s long talks on a bilateral free trade agreement and excluded Norwegians from visa-free treatment on brief visits to China. Norwegian businesspeople, journalists and academics have been denied visas for unexplained reasons.

Similarly, economic exchanges with Britain were held up after its prime minister, David Cameron, met last year with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader, whom China reviles as a separatist. Those exchanges were restored only this month following London's assurances that Cameron had no further plans to meet the 78-year-old cleric.

China also was critical of Lithuania for hosting the Dalai Lama. Many other nations have suffered similarly for angering Beijing over issues such as Dalai Lama, human rights, territorial disputes and support for Beijing's rival Taiwan. Beijing banned Filipino bananas and disinvited the country's President to a regional trade meeting following a dispute over islands in the South China Sea.

Relations with Japan, always complicated by lingering ill will over World War II, have sunk to new lows since Tokyo last year nationalised a group of uninhabited islands claimed by China.

Different standards

In Beijing's calculus, not all nations are equal offenders, however. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel met with the Dalai Lama in her official office in 2007, Germany is a key economic partner and Beijing issued barely a peep. Beijing also tends to overlook the Dalai Lama's meetings with US officials in deference to its crucial relationship with Washington.

The lack of a common policy in the West toward China's trip-line issues allows Beijing broad freedom to react, and European states especially are quick to capitalise when a neighbour falls afoul. Norway's loss in salmon exports, for example, has been a boon to other exporters, especially Scotland and the Faroe Islands.

While Beijing punishing Norway offers little risk, some question what China ultimately gains. Chinese leaders appear to have locked themselves into a game of political chicken from which they don't dare back down, said Marc Lanteigne, a China scholar at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.

Beijing may find other interests outweigh punishing Norway, particularly its desire for economic co-operation in navigating newly ice-free shipping routes in the Arctic and accessing Norwegian expertise in deep-water oil drilling, Lanteigne said.

"I would say that China's handling of the Nobel Prize affair has accomplished little for Beijing and I think the Chinese government is seeking the best way of breaking the ice, so to speak," Lanteigne said.

Thus far, though, Beijing seems to expect Norway to make the first move.

Read more on:    angela merkel  |  xi jinping  |  david cameron  |  dalai lama  |  liu xiaobo  |  norway  |  china

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