Summary of the Second Sino-Nordic High Level Think Tank Forum

On September 19, 2019, ISDP hosted the second China-Nordic High-Level Think Tank Forum, the purpose of which was to discuss the current state-of-affairs between the Nordic countries and China, communalities and challenge for multilateral and bilateral dialogue, potential areas of collaboration and the benefits that come from deepening the relationship. The forum was co-organized by ISDP together with the Central Institute of Party History & Literature (CIPHL) a think tank established directly under the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee. The presentations by more than 20 scholars and academics spread over four panels  in the Kapitel 8 conference venue in Stockholm.

An introduction by Dr. Niklas Swanström, Executive Director of ISDP, and Ms. Zhang Peng, Senior Researcher and Director of the Research Planning and Management Department of CIPHL, marked the start of the discussions. Dr. Swanström began by stating that even though there have, as of late, been some difficulties in China-Nordic relationships, it is necessary to not shy away from these differences but to open the way to dialogue. Ms. Zhang continued with this line of thought, stating that the Forum was a good opportunity for mutual understanding between scholars, and that she wishes that this collaboration will continue into the future.

First Panel: Whither Sino-Nordic Relations?

The first panel of the day had as its main topic the current state of Sino-Nordic relations, ups and downs in the relationship, and where the relationship is heading. The panel included Dr. Andreas Boje Forsby, researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies; Mr. Yu Xiaoqiu, Senior Researcher at the CIPHL, and Dr. Rasmus Bertelsen, an associated fellow at the ISDP, and Barents Chair in Politics at the Arctic University of Norway. The panel was moderated by Dr. Lars Vargö, head of the ISDP Japan Center, and former Swedish Ambassador to the ROK and Japan.

Dr. Andreas Forsby was the first panelist to take the floor, and began by saying that economic relations have always been the backbone of the relationship, and that bilateral trades have grown in recent years, both regarding imports and exports. China is now the second most significant export destination for all of the Nordic countries, behind only to the USA. He continued by enumerating the different bilateral initiatives that are currently in place between the Nordics and China, stating that each country is bond by different strategies, rules, and regulations. He noted that this is especially true as partnerships with China also exist within international platforms in which not all of the Nordic countries are members, such as the EU or NATO.

Dr. Forsby then targeted the added value of the Sino-Nordic relationship. He noted that the Chinese benefit from a relationship with the Nordic countries as a result of their reliability as trade partners, due to rule-of-law, anti-corruption measures, and free-trade, and in order to improve their reputation by proxy of the Nordic model. The Nordics, on the other hand, stand to gain from the huge Chinese market, which already has had a positive perception of the Nordic brand, while, on the political side, their developed relationship would China would additionally create increased diplomatic clout when interacting in international forums.

He finished by suggesting five specific areas for joint initiatives, among which counted research networks, the sustainability agenda, and the Nordic business brand, and also noted some challenges, like the political differences and diverging core values. In addition, he stressed how the hightened US-China strategic rivalry put pressure on the Nordics, as allies to the former.

Following Dr. Forsby, Mr. Yu Xiaoqiu of the CIPHL discussed some of the changes in the relationship between China, the USA, Russia, and the Nordics, which he expects will last a decade. He remarked that he can see many areas of collaborations, and highlighted the common concerns in the Arctic. His contribution ended on a positive note stating that he thinks that it will be possible to overcome differences, and that common interests should be promoted in multilateral fora like the UN, for instance regarding free trade. Mr. Yu stated that China wants the bilateral relationship to remain stable in the future, and that cooperation between China and the EU is a starting point and a good way to handle regional issues.

Dr. Rasmus Bertelsen began by giving a historical perspective on Sino-Nordic collaboration, focusing on cultural and educational agreements since the 1950s, and how this exchange has impacted societies and mutual understanding on both sides. In addition, he noted how the Nordic countries should work together when negotiating with China, as this maximizes their impact by virtue of a larger market and economic weight, and by maximizing resource efforts.

After these interventions, some questions were put to the panel, the first of which regarded the biggest impediments to collaboration. To this, Dr. Forsby replied the lack of collaboration among Nordic countries; Mr. Yu the relatively small investment size; while Dr. Bertelsen highlighted the lukewarm political relationship, and strong external pressures. The second question regarded whether existing challenges are intrinsic, or just temporary, which sparked debate among the table.

Second Panel: Building a Global Governance Model

The second panel had as its main topic the different modes and spheres of governance, and whether the China and Nordic countries´ different models are compatible. On the panel were Mr. Dong Zhenrui, Associate Researcher at the First Research Department of CIPHL, Dr. Gorild Merethe Heggelund, Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Ms. Mirva Salminen, Researcher at the Arctic Center of the University of Lapland, Mr. Stefan Gustafsson, Vice-President of Strategy and Sustainable Business at the Swedish Space Corporation, and Mr. Pär Nyrén, Project Manager at the Stockholm Free World Forum. The panel was moderated by Mr. Mats Engman, Distinguished Military Fellow at ISDP, who introduced the topic.

The first speaker was Dr. Heggelund, who mainly tackled global governance from the perspective of environmental challenges, climate change, biodiversity and chemical pollution. She observed that China is a major contributor to these issues, substantiating this statement with statistics, but that it also has the potential to be a major force in resolving them. She pointed out how China needs to diminish its environmental impact in order to maintain the sustainability of future economic projects, and noted recent initiatives like China´s 13th 5 year plan and its goals regarding emissions, and the number of electric vehicles on the streets. She also noted that China is potentially taking the US´s lead with regards to environmental governance.

Following Dr. Heggelund, Mr. Dong explained the Chinese perspective on Global Governance. He started by describing how regional and national issues can have great global consequences and thus require the joint effort of multiple countries to work on a resolution. As practical examples of working together, he reminded the public of China´s efforts in global climate change governance, and the community building via the BRI initiative.

Mr. Gustafsson introduced the topic of space governance, and drew special attention to how the issue isn´t just about space itself, but its uses on earth as well. He noted how space can be used for, among others, Earth observation, satellite systems, information technology, and communication, but that there exist risks associated with these technologies. Mr. Gustafsson then defended that there is a need for space governance to ensure that this expansion is done safely. As an example, he cites the huge number of satellites and the impending possibility of crashes, that could hamper critical systems, and which are currently unregulated.

After Mr. Gustafsson’s intervention, Ms. Salminen discussed governance regarding cyberspace. She first detailed the Internet governance timeline, and how it is closely connected to the US. She also explained the difference between cyberspace governance and internet governance, and reminded the audience that everyone is a stakeholder online. She cited the ultimate goal of cyberspace governance as being to protect the security of the human being, though there is a strong responsible of the individual online. In addition, she stated that neither do all individuals have equal access to the internet, not is their knowledge of online safety the same either. To conclude, she listed some of the serious threats in the global cyber domain, including terrorism, espionage and data security.

Mr. Pär Nyrén finished the panel with a discussion on trade and investment governance. He explained how political issues have made frictionless trade difficult, and how political systems can cause hindrances to global governance. He explained how the political systems can frames trade policy by providing an example of a European Commission report that denied China the status of being a market economy. However, when observing said report much of its content was about the Chinese political system, rather than about the characteristics of its economy,

Mr. Nyrén also remarked on how though the WTO does not traditionally deal with security concerns, there are currently a number of debates regarding when national security can be used as a reason to not comply with the trade agreements, and when this dips into protectionism. This last point has recently become a major grievance for China, which claims that the national security clause should be better explained within the WT0, especially given the current concerns regarding the US trade war.

During the following panel discussion, Mr. Engman asked the table to propose one area for Sino-Nordic cooperation regarding each of the panelists´ area of expertise. To this, Dr. Heggelund replied environmental cooperation via multilateral system and maintaining communication between both parties; Mr. Dong replied increasing human exchanges via employment and education, and highlighted the importance of think tanks; Mr. Gustafsson highlighted the need for space traffic management; Ms. Salminen touched upon the importance of trust building between different countries; while Mr. Nyrén spoke of some reform to the WTO.

Third Panel: Climate Change, the Arctic and the Belt and Road Initiative

Ms. Iselin Stensdal, Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Ms. Liu Minru, Associate Researcher of the CIPHL, Dr. Marc Lanteigne Associate Professor at the University of Norway, and Ms. Nian Yue, Reseach Assistant at the CIPHL, were the key speakers are the penultimate panel, which focused on Sino-Nordic relations regarding the Artic and how environmental protection of the area interfered with the geopolitics of the region. The panel was moderated by Dr. Guoyi Han, Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

The first speaker was Ms. Stensdsal who discussed how China´s priorities in the Arctic are research; protecting eco-environment; utilizing arctic resources lawfully (resource extraction, conservation efforts, developing tourism and sea routes); and participating in governance and international cooperation. She noted how the Artic would be a major time and fuel savings for Arctic shipping routes. One of Ms. Stendsal´s key points was on the power of values within foreign policy, stating that while the West highlights human rights and democracy, China emphasizes peace and development.

Mr. Lanteigne began by reminding the audience that, prior to 2013, Beijing lacked a clear Arctic policy. This changed in 2017, when blue water passages were first mentioned in policy papers as crucial to the BRI, and their importance was confirmed a year later via a Chinee white paper. Nonetheless, Mr. Lanteigne noted that Beijing still lacks a clear end goal for the BRI in the Artic, though it is looking to have more of a say in the region and considers itself a “Near Arctic State”. He then circled back to the relationship with the Nordic countries, and talked about how underdeveloped far-north communities tend to react very positively to Chinese FDI. Finally, he highlighted some caveats for China, namely how the USA-Sino conflicts are spilling over into Arctic Cooperation, and how the US does not recognize it as a “Near Arctic State”, as China nonetheless lacks a direct Arctic border.

Ms. Liu gave an overview of the BRI developments, and discussed the cooperative agreements it has led to, 4, out of 285, of which are with the Nordic countries She highlighted that the pool of participants has increased since 2016, and that there are at least three main BRI trade and transport routes today. In addition, third party countries are also welcome to use the BRI.

Following Ms. Liu, Ms. Nian discussed China´s efforts in addressing climate change, referring to multilateral efforts, such as UN frameworks and convections, or the Green Belt and Road, and domestic efforts like the National Conference on Ecological and Environmental Protection of 2018. Regarding the Artic she highlighted how China has funded research and experts to regulate its presence in the region.

The panel discussion mostly concerned the idea of values as drivers for action, the role of the BRI as an international project, and how the BRI has become a legitimizing justification for China´s presence in the Arctic.

Fourth Panel – The future of China-Nordic Research and Think Tank Cooperation

The final panel included Mr. Julian Tucker, Junior Research Fellow at ISDP, Mr. Tian Jianfeng, Research Assistant at the CIPHL, Dr. Tony Fang, Professor at Stockholm University and Associated Fellow at ISDP, and Mr. Stephan Gustafsson, with moderation by Dr. Niklas Swanström. The topic of discussion regarded Think Tanks, their objectives, and their future, as well as the future of Sino-Nordic relations.

The panel began with an introduction by Mr. Julian Tucker who talked about how the public could benefit from the ideas discussed in think thanks, and how think thank employees exist in a conceptual space somewhere between academia, journalism and policy.

Mr. Tian talked about Think Tank´s importance for modern governance and dialogue, in creating exchanges, and in network building. Regarding Sino-Nordic Relations, he defends that Sino-Nordic development models are highly complementary and compatible and that there is a need for common approach to challenges.

Dr. Fang presented a cross cultural perspective on Sino-Nordic relations, comparing innovation models, and discussing what China can learn from the Nordics.

The discussion that followed, concluding the day, involved a debate on the meaning of socialism within different spheres, and the freedom or constraints that impact think thanks when writing, discussing and publishing their findings and opinions.

ISDP and CIPHL would like to extend our deepest thanks to everyone who participated during the day.