It has been a longstanding joke in Oslo diplomatic circles that Norway and China have always been close neighbours since they are separated by only one country, with the minor detail being that the country in question is the Russian Federation. Yet, the closeness between China and Norway was sorely tested during 2010-16 when bilateral diplomatic ties were downgraded in the wake of the Nobel Prize incident. Since that time, recent efforts to improve the relationship have included updated trade and exchange agreements, as well as dialogues and information-sharing revolving around the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. Sino-Norwegian free trade talks, which fell into abeyance during the diplomatic freeze, have now restarted, and there is the possibility of a completed deal as early as this year. Should a free trade agreement be successfully concluded, Norway would become the second Arctic state, (after Iceland in 2013), to have preferential access to Chinese markets.
With all of these events taking place, it was understandable that this year’s Barents Spektakel, which promotes itself as ‘Norway’s most border-crossing festival’, settled on a China theme this year. The annual event, which this year included art and cinema exhibits, music, literature and poetry readings, markets and seminars, took place over five days in the Arctic Norwegian town of Kirkenes, (population about 3600), a short distance from the Russian border. The cross-border festival, which has been held since 2005, decided on the theme of ‘The World’s Most Northern Chinatown’ this year.
The decision to make China the centrepiece of the festival not only reflected the restored relations between the two states, but also increased talk about the possibility of China playing a leading role in the development of an ‘Ice Silk Road’ (Bingshang Sichouzhilu 冰上丝绸之路) which would extend from Northeast Asia to the Nordic region via Siberia, as well as the Russian coast of the Arctic Ocean as the potential for far northern shipping moves closer to reality. The Ice Silk Road has been connected to China’s greater ‘Belt and Road’ trade route policies since mid-2017, and further confirmed as a priority for China’s Arctic engagement in Beijing’s January 2018 white paper on the Arctic.
Kirkenes, as well as other northern Norwegian coastal towns, are paying attention to the possibility of increased Asian shipping vessels making use of the Arctic for faster transits to European markets. Since becoming an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, China has greatly enhanced its presence in many parts of the circumpolar north. Since the Xi Jinping government released its Arctic white paper, China has continued to expand its economic interests in the region to include investment in natural gas, (the Yamal LNG Project in Siberia), potential mining in Greenland, and enhanced shipping in the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic Ocean and possible port projects.
In Kirkenes, another great power, namely Russia, is never far away either geographically or culturally. The town lies only about sixteen kilometres away from the Russian border crossing station at Storskog, (with the city of Murmansk a mere three-hour drive away from Kirkenes), and Russian cultural influence not hard to find in even a short walk around central Kirkenes. In 2012, Norway and Russia agreed to establish a visa free zone on their border region, encompassing an area about sixty kilometres wide, including Kirkenes and its close-by sister Russian city of Nikel, (which got into a dispute with Oslo over pollution emissions crossing the border earlier this year), in the hopes of developing a deeper Barents economic community.
Some Finnmark regional leaders had even gone as far as to recommend the eventual implementation of visa free travel between the whole of Norway and Russia, but such a goal would be complicated to say the least, not only because of worsened relations between Russia and Western Europe but also Norway’s inclusion in the Schengen Zone, an internal visa-free travel area which includes much of Europe.
The sensitivity of the 196km-long Norway-Russia border had been illustrated over the past five years when migrants seeking to escape the ongoing civil war in Syria attempted to cross into Norway via the Russian border, with numbers reaching a peak in 2015. The Barents region has also been caught between the worsening relations between NATO and the Russian military. Norway was the primary host of the Trident Juncture 2018 NATO exercises which took place late last year, and the news from earlier this week by the Norwegian Intelligence service that eleven Sukhoi Su-24 (also known by NATO as Fencer-type) fighter jets from the Russian air base at Monchegorsk had recently staged a mock attack of the radar installations at Vardø, about 82 kilometres from Kirkenes. There have also been complaints from the Norwegian government that Russia has been periodically interfering with GPS signals in the Norway’s high north, assertions which Moscow has denied.
Even though government-to-government relations between Norway and Russia have become more difficult in recent years, especially in the wake of the Western sanctions on Moscow after the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014, in Kirkenes and other bordering towns in the Sør-Varanger region, public perceptions of Russia are in many cases more varied. There remains much respect for the Red Army’s central role in the liberation of the East Finnmark region in 1944-5 during the latter stages of the Second World War, and it was confirmed this month that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be traveling to Kirkenes in October for the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the freeing of the Finnmark region from Nazi occupation.
Russian markets are frequent events in Kirkenes, and during this year’s Barents Spektakel, traders from across the border set up shop in the compact town square selling goods including wool clothes, Soviet military hats, crystal ware, and wooden matryoshkadolls. Russian tourists were easy to spot along with visitors from China and across Europe and elsewhere. Despite the current geopolitical situation, Kirkenes, along with other regions on both sides of the border reflects a developing sub-regional identity connecting Northern Norway with North-western Russia. In 1993, the Barents Regional Council was formed, bringing together fourteen counties in the Barents Sea region, (from Norway and Russia as well as Finland and Sweden), as well as representation from regional Sami peoples as well as Nenets and Vepsians indigenous communities in Russia.
In addition to complicated relations with Russia, Oslo is also wrestling with China’s growing Arctic interests as well as its increased power on a global scale. The Norwegian government is trying to decide whether to accept further cooperation with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in the development of fifth generation (5G) mobile technology, in the wake of concerns about the firms close ties to Beijing and the possibility of espionage. The United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have all recently opted to ban engagement with Huawei, while other economies such as Canada and the United Kingdom are considering following suit.
Earlier this month, Morten Haga Lunde, the Chief Director of the Norwegian Intelligence Service (Etterretningstjenesten) stated earlier this month that China’s growing Arctic presence may present a challenge to Norway’s strategic interests, a point which also explored in the organisation’s most recent annual review [pdf, In Norwegian]. Mr Lunde also noted that as China develops further economic interests in the Arctic, the eventual presence of Chinese naval vessels in the Nordic Arctic could not be ruled out [In Norwegian].
From the viewpoint of Kirkenes and the surrounding region, however, the prospect of an Ice Silk Road extending well into the Arctic Nordic region is commonly seen as more of an economic opportunity, especially give the possibility of increased ship visits and the potential for Chinese investment in transportation infrastructure. During a seminar on Asia-Arctic relations held during the Barents Spektakel, co-hosted by the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway, and the Municipality of Sør-Varanger, there was much optimism from some speakers about the potential benefits of Chinese infrastructure investment in Northern Norway.
Mr Rune Rafaelsen, Mayor of the Sør-Varanger Municipality [In Norwegian], spoke about the possibilities of Chinese investment in a potential rail link connecting Kirkenes with Roveniemi in Finland, which would serve as a link between Russian/East Asian railway networks and those in Europe. Despite a recent report from Finland which suggested that such a link may not be economically viable in its current planned form, Mr Rafaelsen expressed the hopes that Kirkenes could not only serve as a future Arctic rail hub, but also as an expanded port for Chinese vessels and a transit point in a proposed fibre-optic cable which could also be constructed between China and Northern Europe.
Mr Trond Haukenes, CEO of the East Finnmark Regional Council, added in his presentation that China could also make contributions to regional tourism, as well as potential cooperation with local mining interests, including iron, (overseen in the region by Sydvaranger), and quartz for smartphone manufacturing, (the Oslo-based firm Elkem oversees a mine at Tana in Finnmark). He also noted that direct flights are being planned between China and the Finnmark region, which could further facilitate new economic cooperation.
The seminar also included regional politics and economic experts from Europe, East Asia and Russia, examining the various facets of China’s growing Arctic interests through the lens of borders and how their nature may be changing. The overall Barents Spektakel this year did much to underscore that despite persistent political and security concerns between Oslo and Moscow, the concept of borders in this corner of the Arctic often takes on a much more nuanced aspect.