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Tag: Norway

Norway

Background

Norway was among the first Western, non-communist countries to formally recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in 1950. However, it would take another four years for the two countries to establish full diplomatic relations, in 1954. While economic and cultural ties were largely non-existent during most of the Cold War, Norway’s role in the United Nations, especially as one of the non-permanent members of the Security Council between 1963 and 1964, brought the small Nordic country face-to-face with China over the issue of the latter’s representation within the United Nations.

Diplomatic delegations from Norway to China began in earnest in 1972, after the US–China rapprochement a year earlier. Still embroiled in the Cultural Revolution, Beijing also began dispatching delegations to Norway in the early 1970s to study its oil industry and hydropower infrastructure. Odvar Nordli (in office from 1976 to 1981) was the first Norwegian Prime Minister to visit China, travelling to Beijing in 1980. The state visit came in response to a trip to Norway by Geng Biao, then vice-premier of the State Council, a year earlier. Nordli’s trip to China marked the beginning of strengthening economic relations between the two countries. From the early 1980s, China also became a recipient of Norwegian development aid. According to the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Norway committed more than 3.7 billion NOK (the rough equivalent of 340 million USD at current rates) in foreign aid to China between 1980 and 2022. Diplomatic relations were disrupted by the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. However, high-level delegations resumed two years later, with the Chinese Minister of Chemical Industry travelling to Norway in 1991 and the Norwegian Minister of Fisheries visiting China the next year.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, human rights and, later, climate change became increasingly salient bilateral issues between Norway and China. Norway’s foreign policy approach to China throughout the 1990s and 2000s resembled that of its neighbours and other Western allies, with Oslo prioritising economic engagement and dialogue on human rights. In 1995, Oslo and Beijing signed a cooperation agreement on environmental issues and, in 1997, the two governments established a formal human rights dialogue. Beginning in the early 2000s, the Arctic emerged as a new geopolitical dimension of the bilateral relationship. Norway supported China’s application for observer status on the Arctic Council, the primary intergovernmental forum in the region, which was eventually granted in 2013. Economic relations were intensifying, too: Negotiations for a bilateral free-trade agreement started in 2008, which have yet to conclude.

The relationship broke down in 2010 when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, prompting a diplomatic boycott by China. Beijing, which considered Liu a ‘criminal’, had previously warned that bilateral relations would suffer if the committee gave Liu the prize. The ensuing diplomatic freeze lasted for six years. During this period, political and diplomatic interactions were heavily constrained and Beijing placed import restrictions on Norwegian seafood.

Normal diplomatic relations resumed in November 2016, when, after several years of negotiation, Oslo and Beijing reached an agreement to normalise the relationship. A joint statement was released confirming the normalisation, with the Norwegian Government pledging to attach ‘high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns’ and to ‘do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations’. The agreement has been viewed critically in many corners of Norwegian politics as the government prostrating itself before an economically and politically ascendant China. Normalisation was followed by a flurry of high-level state visits and business delegations to China. Prime Minister Erna Solberg (in office 2013–21) arrived in Beijing in April 2017, and several ministerial visits followed later that year. The Norwegian royal family led a large delegation to China a year later, marking the royal family’s first visit to China since 1997.

In 2019, Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, headed a delegation to Norway. A year later, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, visited Norway as part of a longer tour by the minister to capitals in Europe, as well as in connection with Norway’s recent election as a member of the UN Security Council for the period 2021–22. Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Espen Barth Eide, met with Wang Yi in Beijing in 2024 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Following the normalisation of relations, both states have expressed a desire to fast-track free-trade negotiations, which resumed in 2017 and which have been a useful barometer for the state of the bilateral relationship. In 2021, a media release from China’s Ministry of Commerce noted that both parties were ‘committed to completing the negotiations as soon as possible’. In late 2022, however, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that, in light of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and other, emerging security concerns, the Norwegian Government would take the time needed to consider ‘issues at stake and how to safeguard [its] interests’ as it draws up its future trade relationship with Beijing.

The geopolitical backdrop has changed significantly since relations were restored. China’s newfound interests in the Arctic, coupled with its deepening partnership with Russia, have made its presence in the high north a growing national security concern in Norway. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is leading to a militarisation of the Arctic, with the NATO alliance increasingly looking northward. US nuclear-powered submarines call at Norwegian ports and long-range bombers refuel at air bases in the country. At the same time, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the controversial rollout of the 2020 National Security Law in Hong Kong have soured public opinion on China.

BRI Status

Stretched along the western edge of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Norway has not played a significant role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Only recently, with the introduction of the ‘Polar Silk Road’—Beijing’s vision for shipping routes across the melting Arctic Ocean—has the country come into view within the BRI. The Arctic Ocean was officially included in the BRI in 2017, when the strategy document ‘Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative’, issued by the National Development and Reform Commission and the now defunct State Oceanic Administration, listed the area as a blue-water corridor. A year later, Beijing issued its first policy white paper for the Arctic, in which it stated, among other things, that it would cooperate with Arctic states to develop shipping routes across the region.

State-run shipping conglomerate COSCO has been at the forefront of these interests and has expressed interest in Kirkenes, a small port in northeastern Norway, near the Russian border. The Chinese shipping giant and local developers have discussed the potential for a deep-water port for large-scale container carriers that would serve as a transhipment hub for trans-Arctic voyages between East Asia and Europe. Plans have also been proposed to connect the port to rail networks originating in Russia, in neighbouring Finland, and through the Baltic region. However, none of these projects has materialised.

Economic Relations

Bilateral Trade: China is Norway’s largest trading partner in Asia and its seventh-largest trading partner overall. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, in 2021, China accounted for almost 6 per cent of Norway’s total exports. By 2022, however, this number had dropped to 2 per cent, mostly as a result of Norwegian oil exports being diverted to markets in Europe while China began to import more crude from Russia. Crude oil still accounts for close to 60 per cent of Norwegian exports to China in value terms. Fertiliser products and seafood are other major export items. As the world’s largest exporter of seafood, Norway sees China as its largest market outside Europe. In 2023, China received roughly 5 per cent of Norway’s total seafood exports. Shipping and marine technology is another important segment and almost one-third of all Norwegian companies operating in China are found within this sector. Chinese imports to Norway are concentrated in telecommunications equipment, accounting for 14 per cent of total imports, and road transportation vehicles, which make up 12 per cent.

Investment: Chinese foreign direct investment in Norway has remained modest, even after diplomatic relations were normalised in 2016. Investments and acquisitions have been centred on Norway’s petroleum sector. Chinese state-owned enterprises have made several major acquisitions in Norway in the past two decades, starting with the purchase of Atlantis, a deep-water drilling company, by state-owned Sinochem in 2002. A drilling subsidiary of China National Offshore Oil Corporation acquired Norwegian drill-rig owner Awilco Offshore in 2008. China National Bluestar, a subsidiary of state-owned ChemChina, purchased Norwegian silicon producer Elkem in 2015. Kunlun Tech, a privately owned web game developer, acquired Norwegian technology company Opera in 2016. Bank of China Aviation took a 12 per cent stake in Norwegian Air in 2020, after the struggling low-cost airline underwent a major restructuring during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Infrastructure is another emerging segment. Sichuan Road and Bridge Group, a Chinese state-owned construction company, tendered for and secured the contracts to build two composite steel-concrete bridges, which opened for traffic in 2018 and 2020. Chinese companies have for more than a decade shown interest in developing seaports in northern Norway, near the Russian border, as part of Beijing’s ‘Polar Silk Road’ vision.

The Government Pension Fund of Norway, the world’s largest single sovereign wealth fund, holds investments in more than 800 Chinese companies. Some 170 Norwegian companies operate in China, according to 2023 data published by the Norwegian Consulate General in Shanghai. Maritime and shipping companies make up more than one-quarter of the Norwegian companies in China, most of which are clustered in Shanghai.

Norway began granting development aid to China in the early 1980s. Between 1980 and 2023, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, an agency under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, granted 3.7 billion NOK (roughly 340 million USD at current rates) in development assistance to China, most of which was earmarked for projects in public health, education, and environmental protection. China-bound aid money peaked in 1994, with roughly 160 million NOK (roughly 14.92 million USD at current rates) allocated that year, and rose again during the six years of diplomatic freeze from 2010 to 2016. China-bound development aid has since generated increasing criticism.

Key Controversies

Human rights: Rows over human rights issues have on several occasions derailed diplomatic relations. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, Norway joined international boycotts against China. Relations were further complicated when the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize—awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, a five-member committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament—was awarded to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama ‘for advocating peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people’. Normal relations did not resume until 1991. A second freeze occurred in the second half of 2005 after visits to Norway by the Dalai Lama and the Foreign Minister of Taiwan. Relations collapsed again in 2010 when the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist and veteran of the Tiananmen protests. This time, relations would remain on hold for six years until an agreement was reached to normalise relations.

Svalbard and the Arctic: The Svalbard Archipelago is a point of possible future tension. Historically a base for European and Russian fishers and, until recently, coal mining, these Arctic islands came under Norwegian sovereignty in 1920 through the Svalbard Treaty. The Republic of China became a signatory to the treaty in 1925—a status inherited by the PRC. While the treaty recognises full Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago, it also grants signatory states equal rights to engage in commercial activities on the islands and in their surrounding waters, making it in practice a free international economic zone. Since the 1960s, however, Svalbard has instead become a hub for international research into the Arctic and the effects of climate change, particularly in Ny-Ålesund, an old mining town and the world’s northernmost permanent settlement, where China, alongside India, Italy, the United States, and a handful of other countries, operates its own research station. In 2003 China established its year-round station, the Yellow River Research Station, which is operated by the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC). In 2019, the Norwegian Research Council was formulating a new research strategy for Ny-Ålesund. PRIC criticised the draft policy, arguing that Norway was overstepping its treaty mandate and that its jurisdiction did not apply to scientific research. Chinese officials and scholars have previously stressed that Norway must be careful to ‘abide by’ the Svalbard Treaty and respect the rights of all treaty parties.

Key Sources

Academic Institutions

There are two clusters of China-related research in Norway. Among the Norwegian universities, the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo is the main institution for China area studies specialists. The department recently became a host of the Fudan-European Centre for China Studies. The BI Norwegian Business School has a series of China-related projects at its Centre for European and Asia Studies. The Norwegian Defence College also has faculty and research projects centred on China. The Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Bergen offers degrees in Chinese language studies. Nord University has launched a Sustainable Leadership and Arctic Perspectives graduate program in collaboration with East China Normal University and Moscow State Institute of International Relations. The University of Bergen hosted a Confucius Institute from 2007 until it was closed in 2021. That same year, the University of Oslo signed an agreement with Fudan University to host the Fudan-European Centre for China Studies after its previous host, the University of Copenhagen, decided to discontinue the agreement.

The Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the Fridtjof Nansen Institute are the main non-university research institutes conducting research on China in Norway. The latter is a member of the China–Nordic Arctic Research Centre, a network of Chinese and northern European universities and research institutes focused on Arctic issues, hosted by the Polar Research Institute of China. Other Norwegian member institutions include the Norwegian Polar Institute, Nord University, and the University of Tromsø.

Reports and Scholarly Articles

Bekkevold, Jo Inge. 2021. ‘Norges relasjon med Kina i 70 år: Småstatsidealisme og realisme i møte med en stormakt [Norway’s Relationship with China Over the Past 70 Years: A Small State’s Idealism and Realism with Respect to a Great Power].’ Internasjonal Politikk 79(1): 65–89.

Gåsemyr, Hans Jørgen, and Bjørnar Sverdrup-Thygeson. 2017. ‘Chinese Investments in Norway: A Typical Case Despite Special Circumstances.’ In Chinese Investment in Europe: A Country-Level Approach, edited by John Seaman, Mikko Huotari, and Miguel Otero-Iglesias, pp. 101–9. Oslo: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. Link.

Kolstad, Ivar. (2020). ‘Too Big to Fault? Effects of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Norwegian Exports to China and Foreign Policy.’ International Political Science Review 41(2): 207–23.

Liu, Nengye. 2021. ‘China and One Hundred Years of the Svalbard Treaty: Past, Present and Future.’ Marine Policy 124: 104354.

Stepien, Adam, Liisa Kauppila, Sanna Kopra, Juha Käpylä, Marc Lanteigne, Harri Mikkola, and Matti Nojonen. 2020. ‘China’s Economic Presence in the Arctic: Realities, Expectations, and Concerns.’ In Chinese Policy and Presence in the Arctic, edited by Timo Koivurova and Sanna Kopra, pp. 90–136. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Sverdrup-Thygeson, Bjørnar. 2017. ‘The Norway–China Relationship: For Better, for Worse, for Richer, for Poorer.’ In China and Nordic Diplomacy, edited by Bjørnar Sverdrup-Thygeson, Wrenn Yennie Lindgren, and Marc Lanteigne, pp. 77–100. London: Routledge.

Sverdrup-Thygeson, Bjørnar, and Espen Mathy. 2020. ‘Norges debatt om kinesiske investeringer: Fra velvillig til varsom [Norway’s Debate about Chinese Investments: From Benevolence to Caution].’ Internasjonal Politikk 78(1): 79–92.

Cover Photo: Oslo, by Luca Sartoni (CC), Flickr.com