By Tabita Rosendal, PhD student at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University, Sweden, and affiliate at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Denmark.
While Denmark retains its pragmatic approach to China and largely frames the Sino—Danish relationship in terms of economic diplomacy, controversies related to human rights have strained bilateral ties in recent years.
Denmark recognised and established official diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950 – the second Nordic country to do so after Sweden. Despite being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since 1949 and a member of the European Union (EU) since 1973, Denmark has retained its interest in developing economic relations with China due to its position as a small, export-oriented state. To date, Denmark is the Nordic country with the highest number of official government-level memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with China, and bilateral relations have been solidified through an increasing volume of high-level diplomatic visits, including by the Danish royal family.
Following the 1989 crackdown in China, the Danish Government adopted a critical, values-based activism and policy approach focusing on human rights that was pursued throughout the 1990s, resulting in strained bilateral relations. Around 2000, in line with other Western governments seeking to capitalise on China’s growing economy, this critical approach was shelved in favour of a more ‘discreet’ model in which human rights were to be discussed behind closed doors or through official channels, such as those provided by the European Union. Denmark’s bilateral relations with China were subsequently developed through economic diplomacy – a pragmatic approach that was cemented in 2008 when Denmark and China established a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) focusing on sustainable development, climate, energy, environment, food safety, green maritime transport, and health.
Throughout the years, however, the intensifying great-power rivalry between the United States and China has led Denmark to retain an uneasy balance between its old allies and its new cooperation partner. Denmark takes cues from Washington when it comes to some Chinese investments – for example, in relation to China’s ‘Digital Silk Road’ and Huawei’s 5G networks, or infrastructure investments in Greenland and the Arctic, such as mining ventures and the Kalaallit Airports. In these cases, Denmark has sided with the United States, noting the importance of preserving alliances related to Danish security policy, and alternative investments to counter China’s influence have been secured through or provided by the Danish Government. Conversely, the Danish Government has been critical of US foreign policy under President Joe Biden, especially in relation to that country’s retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, but also its polarising policy on China.
The approach of the preceding Trump administration caused similar political friction in US—Danish relations.Nevertheless, since 2019, Denmark has adopted a more vocal approach to Chinese politics and investments. The country now follows the policy laid out by the European Union, considering China a cooperation partner, an economic competitor and a ‘systemic rival’. The Danish approach to China is increasingly debated in Folketinget (the Parliament), and political parties from all sides of the spectrum are voicing concerns over China’s current trajectory, especially in relation to democracy, human rights, and the flexing of its muscles on the international stage, not least in the South China Sea. Views of China among politicians as well as the public have worsened, and there have been calls on the government to demand China uphold human rights and strengthen democracy, as well as to create a clear strategy concerning Sino—Danish relations.
Denmark became one of the founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015. Membership was viewed as a means for Denmark to adhere to the Danish Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy, particularly in terms of promoting globalisation and connectivity, as well as advancing Danish trade interests. In conjunction with its membership of the AIIB, Denmark was quick to show interest in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), although at the time of writing in February 2022 no official BRI MoU has been signed. Therefore, in 2017, when former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (in office 2009-2011 and 2015-2019) visited China, President Xi Jinping expressed hope that Denmark and China would enhance their cooperation under the BRI framework. Subsequently, the CSP was bolstered with the launch of a Joint Work Program (JWP) between the two countries.
An agreement to renew the JWP was made in November 2021 when Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. The new JWP entails an emphasis on addressing climate change and promoting bilateral cooperation in areas such as the green transition. However, while Danish companies such as COWI, Vestas, and Maersk have been present and active in BRI discussions, and have cooperated with Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in different ways – for instance, by consulting for certain overseas projects – it remains unclear whether Denmark plans to get more involved in BRI projects in the future. The initiative has been widely criticized by different Danish politicians and political parties – for example, in relation to issues of human rights and the environment. As the BRI has also received pushback from some of Denmark’s European allies and the United States, it could lead to discord with some of these allies if Denmark officially ‘joins’ the initiative.
Current Economic Relations
Trade: While Denmark has grown more sceptical of China’s global intentions and more critical of the country’s human rights issues, Danish authorities have kept a pragmatic attitude when it comes to commercial and trade interests with China. According to the United Nations’ COMTRADE database on international trade, in 2019, China exported goods worth 6.97 billion USD to Denmark – mainly passenger and cargo ships, medicine, and textiles. Danish exports to China reached 5.28 billion USD – primarily consisting of growth hormones, pig meat and edible meat offal, and medical equipment. Bilateral trade in commodities between the two countries in 2020 was worth 12.04 billion USD – a 14.7% increase year-on-year. In 2022, China surpassed Norway to become Denmark’s fifth largest export partner.
Investment: Most Chinese investments in Denmark are in the fields of renewable energy, health and welfare solutions, and advanced technologies such as robotics and information technology (IT). The Danish Government has largely framed China’s interest in Danish companies as beneficial, and the fact that China increasingly seeks out Danish knowhow has been viewed positively. Even so, shifts can be seen in the Danish approach to Chinese investment. Overall, Danish industry remains positive, arguing that China is unduly ‘demonised’ and the Danish state should not be unnecessarily worried about the country acquiring Danish knowhow and access to critical infrastructure. At the same time, China’s lack of interest in investing in Danish companies and projects is framed as worrisome by industry, with the argument that Denmark needs the economic boost such investment would bring. Sometimes, Chinese expertise may even be needed, such as in 2020, when China Railway Engineering Equipment Group (CREG) was contracted to deliver two tunnel-boring machines for the expansion of the Copenhagen Metro.
However, criticism persists, and resistance is growing in some quarters. Critics argue that Denmark should not be an ‘investment buffet’ for Chinese companies seeking to take over key technologies, and that Denmark risks selling out its cultural values related to democracy and freedom of speech by accepting Chinese investment. Some Danish companies have found themselves in hot water over cooperation with controversial tech-giants such as Hikvision, whose surveillance technology has been used by the Chinese state in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. As a result, in 2021, the Danish Business Authority introduced new regulations for screening foreign investments in sectors such as defence, IT, and critical infrastructure.
(Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce)
Aid: The Sino—Danish aid landscape has been viewed positively during the Covid-19 pandemic, as Denmark offered monetary and material support to China, which then returned the favour. However, in February 2021, intense criticism was levied at Danish development assistance to China, which continues to identify as a developing country despite having the second-largest economy in the world. At the time, Denmark had active development projects in China amounting to roughly 170 million DKK (approximately 26 million USD), primarily related to renewable energy, water sanitation, and urban development. Climate and energy collaboration remains a focal point of Danish aid and, in the past decade, Denmark has used funds from the Danish International Development Agency to cooperate with some of the world’s primary emerging economies and emitters of carbon dioxide. In 2020, using a 250 million DKK (approximately 38 million USD), five-year grant, Denmark began its largest climate collaboration thus far, with China, Vietnam, Mexico, and South Africa.
While Denmark officially supports the One-China Policy, many controversies in the Sino—Danish relationship have centred on Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. One high-profile incident concerned the so-called ‘Tibet flag case’, which began in June 2012 when former Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Denmark and was driven to the centre of Copenhagen to attend high-level meetings. To voice concerns over the ongoing repression in Tibet, Danish demonstrators waved Tibetan flags along the route, but the Danish police forcibly removed the flags and the demonstrators on orders from the government – in direct contravention of Danish law on freedom of speech. The event sent shockwaves through the Danish parliamentary system and contributed to a public uproar about the importance of criticising China’s human rights issues. Subsequent events have underlined Denmark’s difficulty in addressing tough questions with China.
In 2019, Denmark received two pandas from Chengdu as part of China’s ‘panda diplomacy’, but when the new panda enclosure at the Copenhagen Zoo was about to open, a map display had to be changed following demands from China because it depicted Taiwan as being independent from the Chinese mainland. In 2020, the citizens’ rights activist Ted Hui, a prominent member of the Hong Kong democracy movement, fled to Denmark with the help of several Danish politicians and the Kina-Kritisk Selskab (China-Critical Society) – an organisation that aims to fight China’s influence in Denmark and to provide criticism of issues related to China’s human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy. The politicians were able to convince the Chinese authorities to allow Hui to travel to Denmark to attend a series of fictive political meetings concerning the climate. However, officials from the Danish Government, including the Foreign Ministry, refused to meet with Hui due to concerns about a political backlash from authorities in Beijing, opting instead to discuss the situation in Hong Kong through official EU channels. In 2022, China’s repression of the ethnic Uyghur population in Xinjiang resulted in a diplomatic hiccup when the Danish Government decided to opt out of its official attendance at the Beijing Winter Olympics. While initial reports stated that Denmark had joined other Western countries in boycotting the games over human rights abuses, the Danish government quickly backpedalled and framed the cancellation in terms of concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic.
Another controversy relates to Sino-Danish knowledge-based cooperation. Because of China’s increasing focus on science and innovation, the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science has labelled China a ‘strategically important country for cooperation’, and strengthened research cooperation is a top priority. Several bilateral MoUs on research and development have been signed and Danish universities, government ministries, and municipalities retain a focus on establishing cooperation agreements with Chinese partners, especially in the field of renewable energy. However, recently, it was discovered China has hired Danish researchers through the ‘Thousand Talents’ program, which the US Department of Justice suspects of stealing Western research. This has resulted in resignations of researchers and has brought intensified attention to allegations of Chinese espionage in Denmark, both in universities and in industry.
Institutions: The China studies environment in Denmark is vibrant and diverse, with a growing number of experts progressing knowledge of China and its politics. These experts are based at institutions, departments, and think tanks such as the University of Copenhagen and its think tank ThinkChina.dk, Aarhus University, Copenhagen Business School, the Danish Institute for International Studies, the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, and the Danish-Chinese Business Forum.
Reports and Articles:
Esteban, Mario, Miguel Otero-Iglesias, Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova, Alice Ekman, Lucrezia Poggetti, Björn Jerdén, John Seaman, Tim Summers, and Justyna Szczudlik, eds. 2020. Europe in the Face of US-China Rivalry. Madrid: European Think-tank Network on China. Link.
Forsby, Andreas Bøje. 2016. ‘Norden og Kina: Førsteviolinist i det nordiske ensemble? Danmarks forhold til Kina [The Nordics and China: First violin in the Nordic ensemble? Denmark’s relations with China].’ Internasjonal Politikk [International Politics] 74(3): 1-9. Link.
Sørensen, Camilla, and Jørgen Delman. 2016. ‘Dansk Kina-politik: fra spørgsmål om eksport og danske arbejdspladser til ny verdensorden [Danish China Policy: From Questions on Exports and Danish Workplaces to New World Order].’ Økonomi & Politik [Economy & Politics] 89(1): 2-8. Link.
van der Putten, Frans-Paul, John Seaman, Mikko Huotari, Alice Ekman, and Miguel Otero-Iglesias, eds. 2016. Europe and China’s New Silk Roads. ETNC Report December 2016. Madrid: European Think-tank Network on China. Link.
Yang, Jiang. 2020. ‘Danmarks politik i forhold til kinesiske investeringer: Pragmatisk balancegang mellem voksende trusselsperspektiver [Denmark’s Policy on Chinese Investments: Pragmatic Balancing Act between Growing Threat Perspectives].’ Internasjonal Politikk [International Politics]78(1): 43-53. Link.
About the author
Tabita Rosendal is a PhD student at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University, Sweden, as well as an affiliate at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Denmark. Her research focuses on the Chinese governance practices of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as the role of China’s state-owned enterprises in port projects in Sri Lanka and China.
The author would like to thank Professor Emeritus in China Studies, Jørgen Delman (University of Copenhagen), for his helpful comments on this article.
Note: This article was previously published in the collaborative project the People’s Map of Global China which tracks China’s complex and rapidly changing international activities by engaging an equally global civil society.