December 19, 2016
A photograph of the imprisoned Chinese democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo in 2010.
Espen Rasmussen for The New York Times
LONDON — China and Norway said on Monday that they would normalize diplomatic relations, six years after the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo opened a rift between the countries.
Neither nation explained the timing of the normalization of ties, but analysts said that Norway was hoping to revive talks on a trade deal that stalled after the Nobel committee awarded the 2010 prize to Mr. Liu, a literary critic and political essayist.
The announcement on Monday accompanied a surprise visit to Beijing by the Norwegian foreign minister, Borge Brende, who met with Premier Li Keqiang.
“Through meticulous and numerous conversations, the two sides have, over the last years, reached a level of trust that allows for resumption of a normal relationship,” they said in a joint statement, which made no reference to Mr. Liu nor to human rights.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in a separate statement that “Norway deeply reflected upon the reasons why bilateral mutual trust was harmed, and had conscientious, solemn consultations with China about how to improve bilateral relations.”
Mr. Liu was arrested in December 2008. Now 60, he has been serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” by organizing a petition urging an end to one-party rule.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which is composed of five members appointed by Parliament, awarded the prize to Mr. Liu for “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The committee is independent of the government, though its membership reflects the political composition of the legislature.
The decision drew outrage from the government in Beijing. China had warned the secretary of the Nobel committee that giving the prize to Mr. Liu would jeopardize relations, and after the peace prize was awarded, Beijing canceled meetings with Norwegian officials and it later halted the trade talks.
At the prize ceremony in December 2010, Mr. Liu was represented by an empty chair. It was the first time since 1935 — when the laureate was Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist detained by the Nazis — that no relative or representative of the prizes recipient was present to accept the award or the $1.5 million check that comes with it.
Ties between China and Norway were not severed, but bilateral talks between the countries on a trade agreement were suspended, which harmed Norway’s salmon industry. Even so, “the overall impact on trade, even in the seafood sectors, was not very profound, and bilateral trade hit record levels in 2015,” according to Marc Lanteigne, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Relations.
Stein Tonnesson, a historian and former director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said that the agreement was “of huge importance to Norway,” given that progress on the trade deal was stalled for six years.
Mr. Tonnesson said he did not think the agreement would harm Norway’s reputation as an advocate for human rights, but he added that the timing of the decision — weeks after the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States — was significant.
“The deal with Norway might be one pawn in a greater game to secure and renew trade policy with other countries in Europe and elsewhere traditionally close to the U.S.,” he said.
In September 2013, Norwegian voters ousted their center-left government. The new conservative government vowed to improve relations with China, and symbolic steps were taken in that direction.
In February 2014, a Norwegian museum announced that it would return to China seven columns taken from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, more than a century after they were acquired by a Norwegian cavalry officer. Two months later, the National Library of Norway said it would return to China a long-lost 1927 silent film, discovered in the library’s archives in 2011.
The chilly relations were also seen as a factor in the decision to demote the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the diplomat Thorbjorn Jagland, in March 2015, though he had also drawn criticism when the 2009 Peace Prize was awarded to President Obama.
“No specific concessions have publicly been given on the Norwegian side, but the devil is always in the details,” said Bjornar Sverdrup-Thygeson, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He noted that the joint statement declared that Norway would not support actions undermining China’s “core interests” and “major concerns.”
“The degree to which there is mutual understanding of the definition of this will be a thing to watch in the years ahead, in particular the next time the Dalai Lama plans a visit to Norway,” Dr. Sverdrup-Thygeson said.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg was widely criticized for not meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who lives in exile in India and is regarded by China as a separatist, when he visited Norway in May 2014.
Writing in the business daily Dagens Naeringsliv, the commentator Kjetil B. Alstadheim warned last year that Norway risked caving in to “impossible demands” that were reportedly made by China to Jens Stoltenberg, the previous prime minister.
If the government pressured the Nobel committee to block future Chinese dissidents from getting the prize, “it might as well put the Nobel Peace center on fire and trample upon a portrait of Nelson Mandela,” Mr. Alstadheim wrote. “Nothing more than ruins would be left of Norways reputation as a champion for human rights.”
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