OSLO (Reuters) - Norway said on Tuesday that China had indefinitely postponed bilateral trade talks in what experts said was an escalation of tension ahead of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honouring Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee angered Beijing last month by awarding the Nobel to Liu, who is serving an 11-year jail term on subversion charges for his role in advocating democratic reform and an end to the Communist party’s power monopoly.
The Asian superpower has snubbed Norwegian ministers and pressured diplomats to boycott the December 10 award ceremony, set to focus the world’s media spotlight on human rights in China.
Norway, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, and China have been negotiating for the past two years a bilateral trade deal that could serve as a blueprint for the European Union’s potential trade agreement with China.
“There has been a delay and at this point we have not set a new date,” Oeyvind Arum, a spokesman for Norway’s Industry and Trade Ministry, told Reuters. “The next round of negotiations was due ... during Christmas and New Year.”
Neither the Chinese embassy in Oslo nor China’s Foreign Ministry were immediately available for comment.
“They indicated that they needed further internal consultations before they can schedule a new negotiating meeting,” said Haakon Hjelde, Norway’s chief negotiator.
He said the Chinese did not openly link the delay to the award to Liu. But Henning Kristoffersen, author of the book “The New China” and director of international relations at the Norwegian School of Management BI, said there was little doubt.
“The Chinese would never hold a high-level meeting with Norway shortly before or after the award ceremony on December 10,” he said. “The authorities in Beijing were very clear that the prize was a big mistake and that it would damage relations.”
Beijing blames the Norwegian government for the Nobel decision, even though Oslo says that the Nobel committee is fully independent. The Nobel panel is comprised of former politicians appointed by the Norwegian parliament.
Further raising pressure, a group representing Norwegian residents of Chinese origin said on Tuesday it was organizing a demonstration against the tribute to Liu.
Ya Ming Yuen, head of the Norway-China Association, estimated that about 100 people would protest outside the Oslo City Hall during the award ceremony there.
Yuen presented Norwegian Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad a letter signed by 300 Chinese-Norwegians denouncing the Nobel tribute to Liu, whom they see as a criminal.
In past disputes abroad, Chinese diplomats have worked with local Chinese communities to lodge similar protests or take to the streets. The Chinese government normally describes such actions as spontaneous.
“Human rights in China are not good enough, but the west should recognise that things have improved greatly,” Yuen told Reuters, insisting that he felt no pressure from Chinese authorities.
“When the West sends messages like this (the Nobel prize) that shows no respect, it has the opposite effect than intended. China will not bow to pressure.”
(Additional reporting by Wojciech Moskwa in Oslo and Ben Blanchard in Beijing)
Editing by Ralph Boulton