Norway feels sting of China's Nobel anger

By Bjoern H. Amland

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 6 2011 7:00 p.m. MDT

Norwegian salmon exporters say their fish is being held up for days by Chinese food safety inspectors.

Associated Press

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.

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