Carl Bildt, Espen Barth Eide, Leona Aglukkaq and Magnus Johannesson at the signing at Framsenteret. (Photo: Morten Brugård)

Jan. 24, 2013 (TSR) – China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Tuesday called on Norway to take concrete steps to create conditions for improving bilateral ties, saying mending relations is up to Norway.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei made the appeal at a daily press briefing, when asked whether Norway’s latest stance supporting China’s bid for permanent observer status to the Arctic Council could be enough to improve bilateral ties.

“China always maintains that Arctic nations and non-Arctic ones should cooperate on Arctic issues on the basis of respecting each other’s rights and understanding all parties’ concerns, so as to ensure peaceful and sustainable Arctic development,” Hong said.

“Arctic-related issues are not only regional matters, but also cross-regional matters involving climate change and navigation,” he said.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barthe Eide said on Monday that Norway will support China’s application for the status of a permanent observer in the eight-member regional council largely comprised of countries on the rim of the Arctic Ocean.

Carl Bildt, Chair of the Arctic Council and Swedish Foreign Minister supported the statement.

Eide gave a definite “yes” answer to the question put to him by a Xinhua reporter if Norway would back China’s bid for the permanent observer status in the eight-member regional council comprising mostly of countries on the rim of the Arctic Ocean.

“We are supportive to the enlargement of the number of observers and we are now working with other members towards a decision at the coming ministerial meeting in May” on the applications including that from China, Eide said at a press conference held after signing the agreement on setting up the Secretariat of the Arctic Council in Tromso, a northern Norwegian city.

Norway wants to discuss Arctic-related issues with all relevant countries and China is clearly a country to have such dialogue with, said Eide.

“You know, Norway and China are neighbors with only one country between us,” added the Norwegian foreign minister.

“We want people to join our club. That means they will not start another club”.

Minister Carl Bildt agreed in support, “The Arctic Council should be the arena for Arctic issues”.

Officials from China, South Korea and the European Union, all of whom seek a higher level of participation in circumpolar affairs, wooed the Arctic Council Jan. 22 at an Arctic conference in Tromsø, Norway.

All three entities with Japan, India and Singapore seek permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, an upgrade in status that could give them more influence over circumpolar issues.

However, well-informed sources told NTB that not all of the eight members in the Arctic Council are “enthusiastic” over the prospect of having a group of observers.

It is highly unlikely that incoming U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would rock the boat, but USA won’t be too happy for all the applicants. Russia’s attitude is also not 100 percent sure. The five Nordic countries, however, welcome the applications.

Former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is similar with Eide’s emphasis in that Norway supports China’s wish to become a permanent observer status in the Arctic Council.

Støre denied all the speculations and pressure that Norway should block China out as a response for China’s diplomatic freeze with Norway.

“If it was up to Norway, China would have been an observer in the Arctic Council by now. We already had this as our decision three years ago when Norway had a ministerial meeting at the Arctic Council,” he said in a meeting about Norwegian security issues.

China blames the Norwegian government for the Nobel Peace Prize award given to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, and has put bilateral relations on ice.

Bilateral ties between China and Norway suffered in 2010 when the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to writer Liu Xiaobo, who was convicted of inciting subversion of state power in 2009. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail and deprived of his political rights for two years, according to Xinhua News Agency.


Immediately after Mr. Liu was awarded the prize in December 2010, Beijing suspended negotiations with Oslo over a bilateral free trade agreement and those talks have not yet.

China and its people’ wrath and disapproval was clear by its form of sanctions.

Norwegian exports to China have also been affected. In the immediate aftermath of Mr Liu’s prize, China introduced stricter, time-consuming checks on Norwegian salmon that led to fresh fish rotting in Chinese warehouses.

Since 2010, China also refused visas to many Norwegian journalists, scientists and businesspeople and cancelled numerous political and diplomatic meetings. The most high profile incident was former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, twice served as Prime Minister, from 1997 to 2000, and from 2001 to 2005, was denied by Beijing entry.

China refused to issue a visa, with no explanation, to former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who had been scheduled to chair a meeting at a World Council of Churches conference in Nanjing on June 2012. Bondevik, who currently serves as president of the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights, was informed that the Chinese Embassy in Oslo had not received the necessary authorization from Beijing.

Bondevik was the only one of the 30 delegates to the World Council who has been denied a visa.

The latest demonstration of China’s protest to the Nobel Peace award is the government’s visa reform which unveiled a list of 45 countries whose citizens will be allowed to enter the city while in transit for 72 hours without a visa, starting from January 1.

Visitors from all 27 EU member states, as well as Iceland and Switzerland, will enjoy the new visa-free treatment, as will those from the US, Russia, Japan, Australia and most major Latin American countries. Norway was left out of the list.

When asked for the reasons of the decision, Wang Qin, a senior official at the Beijing government travel administration, evasively responded and said that some countries were not eligible because their citizens or government were “of low-quality” and “badly behaved” reported by Financial Times.

Visa-free status was granted to countries that sent the most tourists to Beijing between 2009 and 2011, according to Chinese state media reports quoting Beijing officials.

According to official Chinese statistics, the number of Norwegian visitors to China in the first six months of this year exceeded those from all but 10 European countries, including Iceland which, like Norway, is not an EU member state.

Statistics Norway (SSB) also confirms this. Chinese guest nights increased by 67% between 2005 and 2011, growing from 55,464 to 92,844 and was seen as an important group for growth in the Norwegian tourism industry in the years ahead while European nations struggle with their economic crisis.

Now it seems there has been a reversal in hopes since Chinese authorities have banned the sale and marketing of tourism travel to Norway.

Chinese authorities have banned, non-written, their country’s state-owned tour operators from marketing and selling tourist travel to Norway.

Norwegian Tourism Director Hilde Charlotte Solheim, says that the received reports from Chinese travel agencies.

“All travel agencies in China are state-owned. They have now been called in at the provincial level to be informed that it is forbidden to market and sell Norway as a destination. We have not received any written information from Chinese authorities, but we feel that this is the public attitude”, she says.

Solheim believes it is up to the Government and Foreign Ministry to resolve the situation.

“China has been an important growth and was interesting for the future. This is the world’s largest market. It is a shame for Norway that we are now losing ground, while other countries in Europe can strengthen their positions in the Chinese tourism market,” she points out.

A foreign affairs official at the Beijing city government said the list of countries had been drawn up by the Chinese foreign ministry, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

China’s move caught the Norwegians by surprise. “We are keen to re-establish relations but all countries are free to ease restrictions on visa-free travel on their own accord,” said a foreign ministry spokesperson.

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry has been working since then to re-establish their relationship just like the way Norway had before the Nobel Peace Prize issue.

In 2012, comments from Assistant Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu were the government’s first in two years on the tensions since Chinese writer Mo Yan won the Nobel for literature in October. That victory, the first literature win by a Chinese citizen, was widely cheered by the Chinese government, in stark contrast to the condemnation with which it greeted Liu’s award. The first face to face contact the month after happened when Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao held a brief meeting while attending the Asia-Europe summit in Laos.

Bilateral relations between China and Norway went sour due to the Norwegian government’s support of the Nobel committee’s wrong decision, and the decision made in 2010 severely infringed upon China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty, Hong said in a previous news briefing on Oct 12, 2012.

China demands that Norway apologizes for awarding the Chinese dissident. Norway claims that the was not politically motivated, however, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a committee of five politicians appointed by the Norwegian parliament, and committee members have always been Norwegian nationals. Thorbjørn Jagland, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which is responsible for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, was a Norway’s former Prime Minister and is the Secretary General of the Council of Europe since 1 October 2009. However, evidence shows that Jagland is not serving the interests of Alfred Nobel, but United States of America.

Arctic Council with current Observer nations

“By backing China’s bid for permanent observer status to the Arctic Council, Oslo is making an effort to improve strained relations with Beijing”, said Feng Zhongping, director of the Institute of European Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

“Oslo is attempting to create a favorable atmosphere to improve ties”, said Chen Mingming, former Chinese ambassador to Sweden. “But it does not mean that Oslo has corrected its mistake. Whether bilateral ties improve depends on how Oslo deals with its wrong decision in Liu’s case”, he said.

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, with the involvement of the indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common issues. Issues of sustainable development and environmental protection are core topics for the council.

The Arctic Council consists of the eight Arctic countries and six non-Arctic countries have so far been admitted as observers. Twelve countries and organizations are currently applying for observer status. These include China, Italy, Japan, Korea, Singapore, India and the EU.

The Arctic Council will decide on new permanent observer applications at a ministerial meeting to be held this May in Stockholm, just before Sweden relinquishes the chairmanship to Canada.


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