Nordic strategies for China and Asia – energy, environment, climate change and R&D

8. Jul 2008

Jørgen Delman PhD, Director, NIAS.


It is well known that the Nordic countries have expanded public, business, and private collaboration with China dramatically over the last 30 years. Before that, activities were limited to trade in selected sectors and some collaboration in the cultural and educational fields.

With the opening of China, its economic rise, and its increased importance in the global economy and political affairs, the Nordic countries have realized the need for even more concerted national efforts to engage with China and benefit from its development. Until now, a few national strategies have been elaborated to address this need (see “Review of Nordic Asia and China Strategies” below) and more are on the way. Some of the strategies relate to Asia in general, whereas others deal with China specifically.

In connection with an ongoing project for Nordic Energy Research, I have had an opportunity to review the strategies with an eye on what they say about energy, environment, and climate change. This is – effectively – as good an angle as any to present the strategies, which generally focus quite broadly.

Indeed, all the strategies have a strong focus on climate change, environment and energy, not least sustainable energy. These are areas that are highly politicized, they are on the top of national political agendas and governments play a key role not only in energy policy-making but also in relation to the various aspects of energy production, transmission and use – not least in China. Due to the international debate and agreements regarding the climate change regime, both the environment and energy sectors may well render themselves easier to handle for the Nordic governments in relation to China in terms of coordination and funding of activities than most other sectors.

But what is the purpose of these strategies? Are they worth more than the paper they are written on? It probably all depends on the eye of the beholder. My argument would be that, first of all, they create a dialogue between politicians and public administrators internally in the Nordic countries about the need to engage constructively with Asia and – in the context of this review – with China in particular. The strategies also challenge the “interested” public in the Nordic countries to recognize that Asia and China are strategically relevant and important for our future.

Furthermore, they send a signal – in casu to China – that, although the Nordic countries are small, both sides have something to offer that the other side needs. The strategies are also used as the basis for the public sector in the Nordic countries to expand its presence in China. Finally, they inform us that if we do not pick up the challenge from China, we may do ourselves damage.

However, it is also evident that the strategies may not necessarily address the challenges identified in a more efficient manner than has been the case until now. The reasons are many:

1. They are packed with intentions, the strategic orientation can be difficult to determine, and there is little guidance for more tangible action. They merely present catalogues of ideas, many of which are already being implemented

2. Although the private sector is seen as a driver, the focus is – for obvious reasons – mostly on the role of the public sector. A host of different government agencies are involved already and it is hard to imagine that any meaningful national coordination is practical unless new organizations with coordination as their task are established. Furthermore, the market in China and the globalizing economy challenges enterprises to operate in ways that are increasingly evasive when it comes to well-intended public support programs

3. The willingness to commit fresh funds on a large scale to specific China programs is largely absent (with the possible exception of a proposed Sino-Danish university[1]). In fact, public funding is primarily available through existing funding channels.

For these reasons, it is as yet uncertain to what extent the strategies can be useful tools when it comes to harness bargaining power towards China and engaging national or other players in more coordinated efforts. It is also unclear to what extent these strategies are of relevance to partners in Asia, or more specifically in China.

In addition, further development of the bilateral ties between the Nordic countries and China in any sector, including the energy sector, will pose new challenges. Many actors are increasingly vying to cooperate with or be present in China, and due to the size of the Nordic countries and their economies, their limited capacity and resources, and the distance to China, the high-flying intentions expressed in the strategies may be difficult to realize unless a more concerted effort is pursued.

Review of Nordic Asia and China Strategies

The following is a review of key Nordic strategies directed towards Asia or China. They are summarized in the table below.

Table – Nordic Asia and China strategies

No. Country Title Year
S1 Denmark Denmark in Asia – Opportunities for the future 2007
S2 Denmark Strategy for Knowledge Based Collaboration between Denmark and China – Summary (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation; full version available in Danish; summary available in Chinese) Full Danish version English version Chinese version 2008
S3 Norway The Government’s China Strategy (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) 2007
S4 Finland Destination: Asia Towards goal-oriented educational, research and cultural cooperation with Asian countries (Ministry of Education, Finland) 2007
S4 Sweden Our Future with Asia – A Swedish Asia Strategy for 2000 and beyond (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) 1999
S5 Sweden Framtid med Asien – en uppföljning av regeringens Asienstrategien (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) 2002
S6 Sweden Country Strategy for Development Cooperation with the People’s Republic of China 2006-2010 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) 2006



Sweden was first amongst the Nordic countries to announce an Asia strategy in 1999 for “2000 and beyond” (S4). It was a very comprehensive document that involved a large number of stakeholders in the process of formulation and it “took the temperature” of Swedish involvement with Asia at the time while making a number of significant proposals for future directions.

The strategy also noted that the energy sector is important for Sino-Swedish cooperation. Sweden has long term experience with hydroelectric power station construction, power transmission, bioenergy and alternative energy resources as well as considerable expertise in energy saving for both industry and households. Therefore, the energy sector was seen as an important field of cooperation. This was confirmed in a follow-up to the strategy in 2002 (S5).

Sweden’s only China strategy at the moment focuses on development cooperation, which means that it has a distinct poverty alleviation focus (S6) and that the geographical focus is on Western China. The goals of the strategy are:

1. Sustainable development (Areas of potential interest in this context include the environmental aspects of sustainable urbanisation and energy.

2. Human rights, legal development and democratisation

3. Gender equality and reinforcement of the social safety net


Denmark adopted a national Asia strategy in 2007 (S1). Energy and environment was seen as one strategic focus of Denmark’s future involvement in Asia. The strategy argued that increased global application of Danish environmental and energy competences could have positive secondary effects at the strategic level, also when the aim of the Danish effort is export promotion. This applies to an increased security of energy supply, decoupling between economic growth and environmental impact, and a better global environment in general, including fulfilling the terms of the Kyoto Protocol.

A national China strategy is on the way and will most likely be published during the autumn of 2008.

In February 2008, the Danish Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation issued a “sector” strategy on knowledge-based cooperation with China (S2). The overall vision of this strategy is that Denmark and China will become close partners in the knowledge area. The first priority in the strategy is to support Sino-Danish collaboration with regard to education, research and innovation. Furthermore, the strategy is supposed to support the activities of Danish businesses in China. The following are the major objectives of the strategy:

1. To facilitate the access for Danish Universities, business enterprises and institutions to create knowledge and innovation in cooperation with Chinese partners

2. To increase the attraction of Chinese talents to Danish universities, business enterprises and institutions in both China and Denmark

3. To increase Danish researchers’ and students’ access to and insight into Chinese educational, research and innovative environments

With regard to the geographical and institutional focus of the strategy, the aim is to conclude framework agreements on joint funding and reciprocity mainly in the growth areas in East China. Under these, bilateral agreements should be established between interested parties on both sides. On the Danish side, funding will primarily be provided through the existing funding systems. In other words, China will be written into existing programs as a priority and funding will be allocated accordingly, e.g. by the research councils. However, new initiatives may also be funded through the national “globalization fund”.

The focus is primarily on the “hard sciences”, but the social sciences and humanities will also be considered, as will the human rights dialogue. Finally, intellectual property rights (IPR) is considered an important issue and the Danish Patent and Trademark Office will be closely involved in bilateral programs to ensure that IPRs are properly regulated in bilateral agreements.

Energy, especially renewable energy, and the environment are expected to be key focus areas under the strategy and Chinese institutions and enterprises are expected to seek Danish partners to jointly develop sustainable solutions and technologies.

A number of specific intervention areas have been identified: Support to Danish researchers in China; block grants for stipends for Chinese PhD students in Denmark and for bilateral innovation networks; funding for new bilateral research projects; scholarships for talented Chinese Masters students in Denmark; cooperation with industry to promote student mobility between Denmark and China; support to alumni networks for Chinese students who have graduated from Denmark; establishment of a “Sino-Danish University” in China; Strategic alliances between Danish and Chinese universities.

Whereas almost all proposals build on existing experiences, the proposal to set up a Sino-Danish University in China is clearly innovative. According to information provided to the author, Denmark is also ready to establish an energy laboratory at one of the key universities in Beijing.

With the exception of the ambition to establish a Danish university in China, the Danish strategies are not much different from other similar Nordic strategies.


Norway adopted a national China strategy in 2007 with the following overall goals:

1. Seek to promote Norwegian business interests, Norwegian expertise and Norwegian values;

2. Seek to integrate environmental, climate change and sustainable development concerns into all Norwegian efforts vis-à-vis China; and

3. Encourage China to play a more active role in a world community that accords a fundamental role to the UN, and is based on respect for human rights, solidarity, equitable distribution and sustainable development.

The priority areas for Norway in relation to China were identified as:

1. Expanded economic relations with emphasis on increased market access for Norwegian goods and services

2. Development that is sustainable at the local, regional and global level

3. Democracy-building and human rights

4. More equitable distribution of social goods and resources

5. Closer cooperation on international issues.

The Norwegian Government will also i
ntensify development cooperation with China in relation to the environment, energy and climate change in accordance with the Norwegian Action Plan for Environment in Development Cooperation and it will seek to establish appropriate consultation mechanisms at political level on issues relating to the environment, climate change and energy. Finally, the strategy informed that Norway would conclude a framework agreement for cooperation and dialogue with China on climate change and energy issues and this was done in June 2008[2].


Finland has not adopted a national strategy for China or even sector strategies as is the case with Denmark and Norway. However, like them, Finland has a wide range of relations with major partner countries in Asia such as Japan, China, India and Korea. Yet, seen as a whole they are fairly dispersed and there is little coordination both at home and among units operating in Asian countries. This is a situation that also characterizes the efforts of the other Nordic countries.

Therefore, the Finnish Ministry of Education initiated a process called “Destination Asia” which aimed at developing focused strategies, actions and plans for collaboration in education and research. A review of document was published in 2007 (S4), which recommended that: Finland should clarify the objectives of cooperation; improve coordination; increase student, researcher and expert exchanges; arrange permanent presence of the Finnish education, research and cultural sectors in certain Asian countries; and increase funding for cooperation with Asian countries.

Interestingly, the report argues that Nordic co-operation would probably be a better approach in the case of big and distant Asian countries: “As the countries in question are extremely large in comparison with Finland, the presence and contacts of one single Finnish organisation there will not achieve the desired effect. Indeed, the effect may sometimes be opposite to what was intended, if for instance representatives of different higher education institutions go to a given university to offer cooperation unbeknown to one another. In many cases, it would be more expedient to set up a co-Nordic proposal, since the Nordic countries are known in Asia as an entity in which single countries do not always stand out. Likewise, EU programmes relating to Asia appear not to have been used to the full. Thus, there seems to be particular need for those cooperating with Asian countries to form more effective networks both at home and in the target countries. It is necessary to enhance coordination at all levels and across administrative boundaries” (S4, p. 5)

The Ministry of Employment and the Economy also identifies China as a major bilateral partner for co-operation on energy and environment.[3]

For all the countries, there is a growing tendency that the ministries of higher education and research focus on the need to improve and upgrade relations with China, like in the case of Denmark. Many bilateral science and technology agreements have been signed over the years.

[1][2][3] (accessed 3.7.2008)