OSLO, Norway — Norway used to be China's top fresh salmon supplier, sending steadily growing volumes to exclusive restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai.
But since the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, Norwegian salmon exporters say their fish is being held up for days or even weeks by Chinese food safety inspectors — devastating its freshness.
"We cannot get fish in there at all," said Henning Beltestad, the CEO of Norway's Leroey Seafood Group.
Beijing warned relations with the oil-rich Scandinavian nation of 5 million people would suffer when Liu was declared winner of the peace prize for his calls for political change in China. Six months later, the Norwegians are stunned by how stubbornly China is sticking to its word.
Political contacts are still "on hold," Norway's government says, and talks on a trailblazing trade agreement are frozen. The fallout also has hit Norwegian companies — salmon exporters in particular — who are being denied access to the fast-growing Chinese market, even as Chinese companies strike deals to enter Norway.
Trade statistics suggest Norwegian goods that China's industry needs — like oil, metals and chemicals — haven't declined since the Nobel. But specialty products with a strong national identity — such as fjord-farmed salmon — are running into trouble, as are Norwegian companies doing business in China, industry officials say.
In a rare statement on the dispute, the Chinese Embassy in Oslo on Wednesday said Sino-Norwegian relations are "in difficulty" because the peace prize was given to "a Chinese criminal ... and the Norwegian government supported this wrong decision."
It made clear that it's up to Norway to repair ties, saying "the Norwegian government should take effective measures to remove the negative impact caused by this."
Political leaders in Oslo have repeatedly pointed out that the Nobel jury, though appointed by Parliament, is independent. The government cannot — and doesn't want to — interfere with its decisions, whether it agrees with them or not.
But it's now coming under pressure from frustrated business officials to make some conciliatory gesture toward Beijing.
"I am very worried about the long-term effect for Norwegian businesses in China," said Lars Berge Andersen, a lawyer who assists Norwegian companies in China.
"The government has to recognize that it has a problem and take action," he said. "It has not just faded away as everybody hoped."
Shortly after the Nobel announcement, China called off meetings with a Norwegian Cabinet minister visiting the World Expo in Shanghai, while the Chinese ambassador to Oslo went on vacation for more than two months.
Before the Nobel, Norway aimed be the first European nation to negotiate a free-trade agreement with China, but talks have been stalled since October, when Beijing said it "needed more time for consultations," Norwegian chief negotiator Haakon Hjelde said.
Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marte Lerberg Kopstad confirmed to The Associated Press that no political meetings between the world's most populous nation and Norway have been held since the peace prize was announced on Oct. 8.
"The Nobel Prize has had consequences for the relationship between Norway and China," she said in an email. "Political contacts are on hold. We can see that arrangements and different types of cooperation are being canceled or set aside since the prize ceremony."
The quality controls on Norwegian fresh salmon were introduced just days after Dec. 10 prize ceremony in Oslo. China cited media reports in Norway of traces of drugs found in Norwegian fish.
Chinese authorities haven't reported any such discoveries in their tests, said Grethe Bynes at the Norwegian Food Safety Authority. However, she said China had notified Norway that 13 shipments of salmon were contaminated by bacteria, and the agency is following up on China's findings with the Norwegian producers.
Frustrated by the delays, Norwegian salmon producers are now turning away from the Chinese market. Norway's fresh salmon exports to mainland China were down 70 percent to 906 tons in the first four months of the year, compared to the same period in 2010.
China's Commerce Ministry and food safety authority didn't respond to requests for comment.
Another Norwegian company that has faced bureaucratic obstacles in China is risk management firm DNV. Earlier this year, Chinese authorities temporarily suspended its accreditation to issue certain certificates, affecting more than one-third of its activities in China, company spokesman Aage Enghaug said.
The accreditation has now been restored, but Enghaug said the tense relationship between the two countries "still represents uncertainty" for DNV.
The problems prompted DNV chief executive Henrik Madsen to suggest to Norwegian media that the makeup of the Nobel committee should be changed to include non-Norwegians. That way the award's perceived link to Norway wouldn't be as strong, he told newspaper Aftenposten in February.
Meanwhile, China is expending its own business activities in Norway, driven by its insatiable appetite for resources. In December state-owned China Oilfield Services announced a contract with Norway's Statoil for drilling in the North Sea.
A month later China National BlueStar bought the Norwegian mining company Elkem in a $2 billion deal with the Oslo-based conglomerate Orkla. Elkem produces high-grade silicon for the solar industry and computers.
Lerberg Kopstad said Norwegian businesses had seen some success in China, pointing to an aluminum joint venture between Orkla and Aluminium Corp. of China Ltd. to serve Chinese high-speed railway projects.
However, that deal was signed in early April with Orkla's Swedish subsidiary, Sapa Group, in a ceremony attended by the Swedish ambassador to China.
"There is no need to be provocative," Orkla spokesman Johan Christian Hovland said, when asked why no Norwegian diplomat took part.
When it comes to seafood imports from Norway, China seems to have singled out fresh salmon — other types of fish haven't been affected by the customs holdups.1 comment on this story
Meanwhile, China in January signed an agreement with Scotland to allow direct imports of Scottish fresh salmon for the first time.
Jamie Smith, spokesman for the Scottish Salmon Producers' Organization, said Scottish seafood exporters had not experienced any hassle from health inspectors in China. "Not to my knowledge," he said.
He suspected a link between China's sudden appetite for Scottish salmon and its Nobel spat with Norway.
"I think that may be one of the reasons," Smith said.