In an interview with The Diplomat, Norwegian ambassador to the US Wegger Christian Strommen discusses the Arctic’s growing global importance and China’s place in it:
One of the countries that might wish to challenge the status quo in the Arctic is China. Clearly, as a non-Arctic state, it’s difficult for them to advance their national interests in the region. What are your thoughts on how China can be properly accommodated in the Arctic?
When we think of China, we think about it as an Arctic issue. For Norway, China isn’t some place you get to by sailing through the Suez Canal or around Africa. It’s somewhere you get to by going over the top of the world. If you live in Africa, you may have a different geographic view. But for us, our Asian Century will be over the top.
So, we welcome the Chinese concerns. They will be sending ships to the Arctic along with many others. In fact, we had commercial routes through the Arctic to China last summer. Issues such as maritime transportation will need to be the joint responsibility of everyone. If you are going to send a ship up there and be commercially active, your involvement is necessary ….
… Are you optimistic that Arctic security can be better managed than the major maritime disputes in the South or East China Seas?
I don’t think that one can compare one geographic region to another. It’s not very helpful. The South China Sea is so far away. We can manage this area as our neighborhood. It might be a nice study to do in the abstract, but it’s not going to help those who are trying to manage the Arctic.
The ambassador’s conciliatory tone contrasts with recent speculation that Norway might thwart China’s ambitions to gain permanent observer status on the Arctic Council. Relations between the two countries have yet to recover from the selection of Liu Xiaobo for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize by an independent committee. But last week’s Economist suggested that the Norwegian side need feel little urgency in bringing about a thaw:
Earlier this month the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, lamented that ties with China have still not returned to normal. “It’s very static,” he said. But if Beijing is expecting an apology, it will have to wait. “That would be politically disastrous [at home] for us,” says one Norwegian official.
With a stable security environment (far from China), solid growth, a large budget surplus, low unemployment and one of the world’s highest living standards, Norway is well-placed to weather China’s deep-freeze treatment. Because China accounts for less than 2% of Norway’s exports, the economic consequences seem eminently manageable.