Norway woos China by refusing to meet with Dalai Lama

Norway woos China by refusing to meet with Dalai Lama

Norwegian-Chinese relations suffered when the Nobel Peace Prize was handed to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo. Now the government tries to normalize relations by refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama.

As a small country with limited global power, the Norwegians take great pride in their humanitarian reputation and the international attention that follows the annual Nobel Peace Prize award. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader-in-exile has long been an efficient and highly publicized critic of Chinese policies, and was himself awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

It was therefore unprecedented when leading Norwegian government officials and parliamentary members – some of whom have previously been prominent advocates for Tibet – signaled that they would not meet with him when he visits Norway in May, a visit ironically intended to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his award.

The crux of the issue is Chinese anger, and continued economic sanctions, over the decision to award the Nobel Prize in 2010 to prominent Chinese activist Liu Xiabo, who is currently serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”.

The Nobel Committee, although nominally independent of the political establishment, consists of former politicians and is frequently misunderstood abroad as a policy arm of the government. The fact that the current committee leader is a former prime minister also does not help to produce an image of neutrality.

Xiabo’s receipt of the award was a huge embarrassment for Beijing, who maintained that he was a criminal and exclusively a concern for Chinese authorities. They retaliated by enacting a partial embargo on Norwegian salmon export, causing a decline from 11,000 tons exported in 2010 to just 4,600 in 2013, despite increased demand.

Other retaliations included abandoning protracted efforts at implementing a bilateral free trade agreement, denying visas to Norwegian businessmen, journalists and academics without reason, as well as banning tourism advertisements for Norway in China – an industry that has experienced significant growth recent years.

Although the overall effect on the Norwegian oil-economy has been hardly noticeable, the political establishment has realized the consequences of angering the second-largest economy in the world. Beijing’s grudge has proven far more protracted than anyone had foreseen, and continued efforts at reconciliation by the Norwegian state department have so far been met with the demand of an official apology from the Norwegian government.

Outright apologizing to China would domestically be “politically disastrous” for any Norwegian government. The public has been shaped by decades of a foreign policy focused on humanitarian work and peace negotiation efforts.

With economic prosperity, a stable security climate and the relatively unimportant economic relation with China (it only accounts for 2 percent of total exports), the public at large sees little reason to kowtow to the Communist Party in China. Such public sentiment was evident in the harsh criticism the government faced over its recent decisions.

The unpopular decision was, however, welcomed by China, who had sharply criticized granting the Dalai Lama a visa in the first place. A foreign ministry spokesperson said that “we have noted the Norwegian government’s recent new position (…) if you say that they made a mistake in the past, and can now change it, that is worth encouragement and approval.”

It remains to be seen whether this gesture will be enough to start a process of reconciliation with China. Far more powerful countries than Norway, most noticeably the UK, have changed their Tibet-policy after being punished economically by Beijing. The Norwegian self-image and public perception, however, makes such gestures extremely politically sensitive – forcing the government to balance between the idealistic public and a realistic foreign policy.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).