China and Norway resume free trade negotiations after diplomatic freeze

BEIJING (Reuters) - China and Norway signed a pact on Friday to resume free trade negotiations, marking the end of a six-year diplomatic freeze, a move China called internationally significant, against the backdrop of a rise in protectionist sentiment worldwide.

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The memorandum of understanding was one of six pacts covering cooperation on economic development, technology, health, science and sport during Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s visit to China, the first since the countries resumed diplomatic relations in December.

Until then relations between Oslo and Beijing had been on ice, following the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

“Your visit to China shows that our relations will again, from a new starting point, go on a long journey,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Solberg ahead of a formal two-way meeting.

It was important to find “common areas of interest” as relations normalize, Solberg added.

Li emphasized the international significance of renewal of the talks, given recent setbacks to globalization and rising protectionism, said a Chinese Foreign Ministry official who briefed reporters on the meeting.

“The resumption of free trade negotiations in this context is very important,” said Liu Weimin, the vice-director of the ministry’s European department.

Liu Xiaobo, who was involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests crushed by the Chinese army, was jailed for 11 years in 2009 on subversion charges for organizing a petition urging an end to one-party rule. He remains in prison.

The Nobel peace prize winner is chosen by a committee in Oslo, while other recipients of the annual awards are decided in Stockholm.

The row between Oslo and Beijing led to difficulties for Norwegian salmon exporters.

Solberg will travel to the business hub of Shanghai and the eastern city of Hangzhou before returning to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping on Monday.

Reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Clarence Fernandez