A textbook lesson in diplomacy: how China and Norway overcame their differences
When politics gets in the way, as it did with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to political activist Liu Xiaobo, diplomacy is the only answer
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to Chinese political activist Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) caused relations between China and Norway to nosedive. Giving the accolade to a critic or opponent of a government is bound to antagonise, the aim being to pressure and shame. Beijing will never take kindly to such interference in its internal affairs and the dissident is still in jail serving the 11-year term for subversion he was sentenced to on Christmas Day in 2009. Last month, though, the nations patched up differences and restored diplomatic and political ties, the visiting Norwegian foreign minister signing a pledge to respect and protect Beijing’s core interests and concerns.
Misunderstandings may be to blame for the breaking of ties. The prize is announced and presented in Oslo, but the award committee is independent of the government. Its members are chosen by the Norwegian parliament, though, and steps have since been taken to further its distance. There was little Oslo could do to please Beijing; it could not apologise for a decision it did not make, nor did it have the authority to rescind the prize.
What brought the sides together after six years is unclear. Norway had tried to placate Beijing, helping it gain observer status on the Arctic Council, giving back historic artifacts and refusing a visit by the Dalai Lama. Yet punishments were not lifted, among them restricting sales of salmon and not extending visa-free travel to Norwegians. What is certain, though, is that the global economic environment is markedly different now than in 2010.
Threats made by US president-elect Donald Trump on trade ties with China have caused uncertainty. Beijing had also been counting on Britain to help negotiate a free-trade deal with the European Union and that role has been scuppered by the British vote to leave the grouping. The Doha round of World Trade Organisation negotiations have also ground to a halt.
China and Norway were on the verge of signing a free-trade agreement when the prize was announced and progress was immediately frozen; that process will now resume and could be a blueprint for similar bilateral negotiations. Norway is also crucial to Chinese plans to use Arctic waters to hasten trade with Europe and its vast oil and gas reserves are a draw. Norwegian companies, especially those involved in fisheries, will benefit.
Diplomacy is always the best way to deal with disputes between nations. China and Norway restoring ties is a welcome development. Invaluable lessons have been learned on handling political friction.