Six years of frozen diplomatic relations came to an end last month with the unexpected announcement by the governments of Norway and China that diplomatic relations, which had been de facto downgraded when Beijing protested the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo in October 2010, had been fully restored.
The news is likely to have numerous positive economic after-effects for both countries, given that during the impasse, a bilateral free trade agreement was placed on hold and periodic disruptions to Norwegian salmon exports to China were reported. Norwegian energy and shipping firms are also likely to reap short-term benefits from the rapprochement.
However, looking beyond the spheres of business and trade, this diplomatic deal is also likely to have significant effects on Arctic cooperation and joint partnerships, given Norway’s position and Beijing’s expanded interests in the circumpolar north. Even during the difficult first few years of the diplomatic suspension, the two countries continued to share information at a sub-governmental level on a variety of Arctic affairs, but with the two governments having restored top-level dialogue, many new opportunities for expanded far-northern cooperation will begin to present themselves.
The post-Nobel Prize dispute has frequently spilled over into Arctic affairs in the past half decade. In September 2014, Oslo turned down a request by China to build a large radar antenna on Svalbard (although China’s Yellow River research station at Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard was unaffected by the diplomatic troubles). Also during that year there was a controversial, and unsuccessful, bid by Chinese entrepreneur Huang Nubo to purchase Arctic land in Norway, including in Svalbard. In October 2015, three Chinese naval vessels conducted a goodwill tour of the Nordic countries to further demonstrate Beijing’s developing Arctic diplomatic interests, but there were no stops in Norway.
Bilateral research cooperation between scholars in both countries on Arctic issues was also at times hampered by the cool diplomatic relations. However, there were occasions on which research dialogues were maintained, including at the annual Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø and meetings overseen by the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC) which was founded in 2013 and brings together Chinese and Nordic region research institutes to debate regional hard and social science issues. Two Norwegian centres, the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) in Oslo and the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, are members of the CNARC network.
From a business viewpoint, new joint ventures in a variety of sectors proved difficult to launch. One exception was a 2013 agreement between the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), Eykon Energy of Iceland and Norway’s Petoro, involving an ongoing joint exploration project to search for fossil fuels in the Dreki area of the North Atlantic.
In the four-part agreement between Beijing and Oslo that officially restored diplomatic ties, Polar issues were listed among the matters for future “win-win cooperation.” Not only would this include the Arctic, but also Antarctica, where Norway has also had a long-standing presence and where China has also augmented its exploration and scientific interests of late. In the Arctic alone, there are several areas that could be subject to greater bilateral cooperation in the future. These include:
Research cooperation: While organizations such as CNARC have provided a platform for China’s subregional research cooperation in the Arctic, there nonetheless remains a wide array of topics on which Sino-Norwegian research can focus, including environmental and climate change, sociology, geography and anthropology. Beijing has stressed that it wishes to maintain scientific diplomacy as a priority in its developing Arctic interests, and joint projects in Iceland and Russia have already appeared in recent years. This research would take place at governmental and sub-governmental levels.
Shipping: With Arctic ice levels continuing to experience record lows, the question of when trans-Arctic shipping will commence on a regular basis becomes more pressing. This is at a time when the Polar Code, which will regulate vessel activity in the Arctic, is about to come into force. China has made it clear that it considers the Northern Sea Route (NSR) an emerging option for Asia-Europe maritime trade, and may become a future complement to China’s developing “Belt and Road” trade routes being pieced together in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean. At the most recent Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík last October, a senior official with China’s Cosco shipping concern outlined the growing importance of the NSR and overall Arctic cargo transit. How will Norway adjust to the possibility of increased Chinese sea trade through the Arctic in the coming decades?
Regime-building: The Arctic Council, with Norway as a member and China as an observer, could be another forum for increased bilateral cooperation. China has expressed support for greater participation in Arctic affairs by non-Arctic states (such as itself). With the region continuing to draw global attention, and with the strong possibility of more observers joining the council in 2017, the question of new organizations and groups being created to address emerging Arctic issues, potentially even security matters, has started to become less hypothetical. In addition, with American engagement in the Arctic now in question and relations between Russia and the West continuing to be difficult, multilateral cooperation in the region will become more complicated, and the issues of Arctic governance are of growing interest to both China and Norway.
While rebuilding economic and diplomatic ties will likely be a priority as Sino-Norwegian relations are jump-started after a long period of dormancy, the Arctic should not be forgotten as an area of mutual concern – and this should also be seen as an opportunity to make up for lost time.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.