China Power

Soul or Salmon? Norway’s Chinese Dilemma

Since awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident, Norway’s relations with China have been…frosty.

Soul or Salmon? Norway’s Chinese Dilemma
Credit: Nancy Pelosi via Flickr

Norway is not a country known for political controversy. Aside from the occasional wrist-slap from international conservationists for its continued whaling, Norway is mostly recognized for its plentiful oil, bad weather and for being a generous donor of international aid. A minor (if visible) exception is when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the Peace Prize to some unsavory, unlikely or premature peacemaker (unpopular candidates include Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat and the EU). Apart from some occasional negative media attention (British readers might remember Boris Johnson criticizing the awarding of the prize to the EU in 2012 as “crazy,” and suggesting that Margaret Thatcher was a worthier recipient), this rarely has long-term, concrete consequences for Norwegian state interests.

However, since the awarding of the prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, Norway has effectively been thrown into the diplomatic and economic deep freezer by Beijing. Since 2010, nearly all high-level bilateral meetings have been cancelled, and Beijing has imposed selected economic sanctions on Norway. According to some sources, Norwegian salmon made up 90 percent of China’s total salmon imports prior to the awarding of Liu’s prize; almost immediately afterwards, this dropped to less than 30 percent. Norway now exports less salmon to China than does the tiny Faeroe Islands. (Chinese officials claim that Norwegian fish is “unhealthy.”) Moreover, Norwegian citizens are still having trouble getting visas to China, with a Chinese official implying that it was because Norwegians are “of bad quality” and are ”badly behaved.”

The Norwegian government has been trying to smooth things over with Beijing. The new Norwegian foreign minister, Børge Brende, was supposedly partly appointed due to his former position as a vice-chairman of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), a high- level advisory to the Chinese government on environmental affairs. Last year Norway voted to accept China as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council, another gesture it hoped would help normalize the relationship between the two states.

So far, Beijing hasn’t budged. According to unofficial sources, the Chinese have presented the Norwegian government with a list of 14 demands that have to be fulfilled for relations to be normalized, one of which states that the Nobel Committee will never again award the prize to a Chinese dissident. (This is, from a factual perspective, impossible. Although its members are selected by the Norwegian parliament, the Nobel Committee is an independent, non-governmental institution, who awards the prize to whomever it sees fit. In fact, when it became clear that Liu Xiaobo would be awarded the prize in 2010, the previous Norwegian government was outspoken in its opposition to the decision, correctly anticipating a harsh Chinese response.)

Recently, the relationship has been further complicated by yet another unpopular-in-China Nobel laureate, the 14th Dalai Lama. The Tibetan spiritual leader was awarded the peace prize in 1989, and is going to visit Norway this month to mark its 25th anniversary. As part of its attempt to improve ties with Beijing, the Norwegian government has announced that none of its members will meet with the Dalai, nor will he be given an official government reception when he visits the Norwegian parliament. This has sparked a massive debate in Norway. On the one hand, those who support the decision (unsurprisingly led by several prominent members of the private industry) argue that Norway’s long-term economic interests should precede the peace prize. On the other, a large segment of the Norwegian media and members of the academia claim that Norway is effectively being bullied by China, and is shunning its moral responsibility to stand up for human rights.

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It remains to be seen whether the Norwegian government will change its decision, or whether it will continue to try to ease tensions with Beijing. A Tibetan commentator succinctly summarized Norway’s dilemma: “it seems like Norway will have to choose between keeping its salmon (exports) or keeping its soul.”

Benjamin David Baker is a Reserve Military Intelligence Officer in the Norwegian Armed Forces and recent graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.