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Falling out of Favor: How China Lost the Nordic Countries

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Falling out of Favor: How China Lost the Nordic Countries

In 2016, the Nordic countries were actively seeking to deepen cooperation with China. Today, they are looking instead to limit China’s presence and influence. What happened?

Falling out of Favor: How China Lost the Nordic Countries
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Five years ago, the Nordic countries (this article will focus on Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) were still eagerly pushing for closer ties with China. Each of the Nordic countries held frequent high-level meetings with Beijing, signed new Memorandums of Understanding to expand bilateral cooperation, competed with each other to attract Chinese investments, and welcomed Chinese-led multilateral initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as well as China’s growing involvement in the Arctic.

In the past few years, however, perceptions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have fundamentally changed in the Nordic countries as security-related concerns and sensitive political issues have come to the fore. This development has been particularly noticeable since 2019 when the Huawei controversy, the Hong Kong protests and the revelation of mass detention camps in Xinjiang prompted the Nordic governments to re-evaluate their relationships with Beijing. Indeed, they have now come to view China as “a systemic rival,” a term first used in March 2019 by the EU Commission in its China strategy paper and recently also adopted by both the Finnish and Danish governments to describe their relations with China.

For some of the Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden, the overall deterioration in bilateral relations with China has been exacerbated by specific quarrels with Beijing. In the case of Denmark, a satirical newspaper cartoon of the Chinese flag with coronavirus symbols, the erection of a “pillar of shame” sculpture in front of the Danish parliament, and Chinese sanctions against the Copenhagen-based NGO Alliance of Democracies have severely strained the relationship. As for Sweden, the Gui Minhai case and the explicit Huawei ban imposed by the Swedish authorities have, along with the “shotgun diplomacy” practiced by the Chinese ambassador to Sweden from 2017-21, taken a heavy toll on bilateral relations.

Yet, the Finnish government is also increasingly voicing its concerns about China’s development in various official reports, with the head of SUPO, the Finnish state security service, sounding the alarm last year about the potential threat from China against Finland’s critical infrastructure. Even the Norwegian government – after publicly pledging in 2016 to “do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations” in order to put an end to six years of boycott from Beijing – has drawn growing criticism from the Chinese embassy in Oslo due to the recent publication of several government reports that “are full of hostility towards China and Cold War mentality.” The embassy added that “it is extremely irresponsible and dangerous to create imaginary enemies.”

China as a National Security Threat

Official threat assessment reports from the Nordic state security and defense intelligence services provide a useful lens through which to gauge recent developments. Five years ago, in 2017, China was barely mentioned at all in any of these publications (except for the Danish report), but today the PRC is depicted as a national security threat. While not presented as an acute or existential threat – and still a secondary threat compared to Russia in all the reports – China is nevertheless increasingly seen as an adversary with hostile intentions, thereby instilling a new sense of cautiousness and distrust into bilateral relationships with Beijing. For instance, the Swedish report singles out China (along with Russia and Iran) as “hostile states [that] target everything from our constitutional rights and freedoms to our economic prosperity, political decision-making and territorial sovereignty.”

Moreover, the Nordic countries share a perception of China as a growing threat, direct or indirect, to their liberal freedoms as Beijing seeks to exert opinion control in various ways. The Danish report observes that “China is adopting increasingly hard-handed and assertive measures to quell criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies and China’s political system.” Similar concerns are noted in the Norwegian report: “Certain countries are willing to go to great lengths to silence political adversaries living in Norway. [Chinese] authorities want to ensure that their political adversaries do not feel safe enough to speak out in public.” Although China’s efforts to silence its critics mostly pertain to sensitive political issues – e.g., its repressive policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Tibet – Beijing’s expanding capacity and willingness to pursue its core interests more assertively abroad heightens the importance of such opinion control.

Changing threat perceptions have already prompted the Nordic countries to adopt various types of precautionary measures to prevent Chinese tech companies such as Huawei from taking part in the development of their critical digital infrastructure. A few years ago, Huawei was still deeply involved in developing and testing 5G networks in partnership with the main Nordic telecommunication companies (TDC in Denmark, Elisa in Finland, Telenor in Norway, and Telia in Sweden). However, as the U.S. government embarked on a securitization campaign against Huawei and, from late 2018, exerted mounting pressure on European allies and partners to stop using Huawei’s equipment, the Nordic countries have employed different strategies to squeeze out Huawei from their digital infrastructures.

For instance, the Danish government was first among the Nordics to buy into the U.S. securitization discourse, referring openly to Huawei as a potential security threat in late 2018 and early 2019 when the question of 5G security was on the public agenda. By mobilizing the Danish Defense Intelligence Service (DDIS) to apply pressure on the main mobile network operators in Denmark – and later by formalizing the DDIS’ discretionary monitoring and veto powers over the telecom sector on national security grounds – the Danish government effectively barred Huawei from the Danish digital infrastructure without imposing an outright ban.

In a broader comparative sense, while some of the Nordic countries (Denmark and particularly Sweden) have targeted Huawei directly and have granted their state security or intelligence service agencies a critical decision-making role in banning the Chinese tech giant, others (Norway and especially Finland) have preferred to tackle the issue of 5G security primarily as a technical-administrative issue within the framework of existing laws and have even allowed Huawei to retain a (temporary) position in the periphery of their 5G networks.

Furthermore, the Nordic governments have also, more generally, become wary of Chinese investments, introducing new investment screening mechanisms (Denmark did so in 2021; Sweden’s will take effect in 2023) or amending existing laws (Finland in 2020, Norway in 2022) in order to allow local authorities to filter foreign investments through a national security lens (and also bringing national laws in line with new EU regulation). Security concerns have even recently had a disruptive effect on research collaboration as public calls for tighter regulation have proliferated following media reports, notably in Denmark and Sweden, about Chinese collaboration partners’ undisclosed ties to the People’s Liberation Army and the potential misuse of joint research projects to strengthen the Chinese regime’s surveillance or repression methods.

Confronting China on Human Rights and Other Sensitive Issues

In the past few years, we have witnessed a resurgence of human rights and other sensitive political issues in relations between the Nordic countries and China. While they see themselves as staunch supporters of liberal human rights protection, for many years the Nordic governments preferred to raise such issues in a relatively discreet manner on the margins of bilateral meetings with Beijing or together with a broader coalition of Western states in multilateral forums such as the UNHRC. However, human rights have recently come to play a much more prominent role in Nordic-China relations.

For instance, on May 12, 2021, the Nordic governments – along with their Baltic partners – issued a joint statement “on the situation of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.” The statement expressed their “grave concern” about the “large network of so-called ‘political reeducation camps’” that “severely restricts the right to freedom of religion or belief, expression, peaceful assembly and association and the freedoms of movement.” Accordingly, the statement added, “we call on the Chinese government to facilitate immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for all relevant UN [personnel].”

Apart from the Xinjiang question, the 2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests have been critical in moving human rights issues to the center stage of relations with China. Not only did the Nordic governments support various EU statements on Hong Kong, but their foreign ministers were active on Twitter to raise international awareness about the situation. At the same time, such Twitter diplomacy can serve to illuminate the differences that seem to exist between the Nordic countries in terms of their willingness to directly confront China on sensitive political issues. Over an 18 month-period (June 2019-December 2020), the Nordic foreign ministers tweeted about Chinese human rights violations 28 times in total. While Ann Linde and Jeppe Kofod, the Swedish and Danish foreign ministers, were by far the most frequent users of their Twitter megaphone (15 and 10 times respectively), Peeka Haavisto and Ine Eriksen Soreide, their Finnish and Norwegian counterparts, only referred to Chinese human rights issues once and twice respectively on their Twitter accounts during the same period.

In response to this newfound willingness among the Nordic countries to speak out against Chinese violations of liberal human rights, the local Chinese embassies in Sweden, Denmark, and recently also Norway have significantly stepped up their public messaging to express anger and frustration over what they perceive to be direct interference in China’s internal affairs. For instance, since the beginning of 2020, the Chinese embassy in Denmark has posted 14 statements that “urge” the Danish government to stop its interference and/or convey “opposition to” or “indignation at” such interference. Meanwhile in Sweden, the now former Chinese ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, was notorious for his intimidating “wolf warrior-style” of diplomacy as he sought to silence Sweden’s China critics.

Taking Stock: A Deepening Structural Divide

At their meeting in the Nordic Council of Ministers in early 2016, the Nordic governments “decided to investigate the potential for developing a closer relationship between the Nordic Council of Ministers and China.” Since then, relations between China and each of the four Nordic countries examined here have instead been seriously disrupted, not only by security-related dynamics, but also by the resurgence of human rights and other sensitive political issues. Quite symptomatically, the Nordic region has almost completely rejected China’s Confucius Institutes. Last week’s announced closure of Finland’s only Confucius Institute at Helsinki University leaves only a rather inconspicuous institute at Kolding IBA in Denmark.

Relations are unlikely to improve any time soon given the presence of two underlying drivers that will continue to pull the Nordic countries and China apart. The first driver is the far more confrontational U.S. China policy adopted since 2018, which has been accompanied by a spill-over of security-related dynamics given the United States’ position as the key security provider and partner of the Nordic countries. The second driver is the hardening and assertiveness of the Chinese regime under Xi Jinping, notably with respect to its handling of liberal human rights issues such as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Taken together, these two drivers have created a widening structural divide between China and the Nordic countries, highlighting fundamental differences of political systems, eroding political trust between the two sides, and paving the way for a broader decoupling agenda. Accordingly, bilateral relations could ultimately be reduced to the instrumental management of overlapping economic interests and common global challenges such as climate change.