BCECC Newsletter: Interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium

We have the pleasure to share with you the interview we conducted with Ms. Sophie Wilmes, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium. Read her reflections on Belgian-Chinese cooperation below.

Q1. We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Belgium and the People’s Republic of China this year. Why is this an important accomplishment for both China and Belgium?

Fifty years ago Belgium and China established their diplomatic relations. Since then, the world has undergone deep changes. In 1971, China was about to begin its opening-up to the world. Belgium was among the first countries which accompanied China along this process. Our companies played a pioneer role in various sectors of the Chinese economy and are still important investors in China. Over the years, we have built a relationship based on mutual respect that enables us to address the many different facets of our relations and to speak frankly to each other when our opinions differ. Belgium insists on having a balanced relationship with China, based on reciprocity.

Q2. Has the COVID-19 pandemic had any negative or positive influence on Belgium-China relations?

The COVID-19 pandemic’s ripple effects on our societies and economies have been felt worldwide. It has caused profound changes on our everyday lives and on the international business environment. International mobility has also largely been put to a halt. The vaccine rollout now enables us to see the light at the end of the tunnel – even though there is still a long way to go, including in developing countries – and hope for a swift recovery. I sincerely hope that trips to and from China will soon resume. It is important not only for our diplomatic and economic relations but also for our people-to-people contacts. The pandemic also underlined the importance of working together in the multilateral framework. The virus knows no borders, resilient health sectors are necessary to guarantee the health of populations worldwide.  There is therefore much room for collaboration on these issues between our countries and in the multilateral system.

Q3. How do you see the future of Belgium-China relations? What do you think Belgium can learn from China and vice versa?

The EU-China Strategic Outlook of March 2019 is one of the cornerstones of our approach to China as a “strategic partner, economic competitor and systemic rival”. It reflects the complexity of our relationship. Our country wishes to build bridges towards collaborative spaces in this relationship in the respect of our values as well as universal rights and freedoms, as is its custom.

Our country attaches great importance to the sustainability of all its collaborations and the respect of international standards when doing business, including with China. China is a key player on the international scene, and its economy is undergoing major transformation. It is extremely dynamic and is on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy by 2030, which will be a major achievement.

The promotion of our economic relations with China takes place in the context of a structurally negative trade balance for Belgium. Identifying areas of mutual interest and working towards better access to the Chinese market and a level playing field for our companies is therefore an economic priority. There are many areas of shared interest for our countries to strengthen their commercial ties and for our businesses to thrive.

Sophie Wilmes, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium

Belgian economic actors have their part to play in this by seizing opportunities in appropriate areas and supporting responsible business practices. They embody the values of open economies and democratic societies. There is a collective responsibility to uphold universal rights and freedoms which are pillars of our democracies, as well as to ensure our value chains are sustainable and fair. We also have international obligations in this regard, notably through various ILO Conventions, and the business sector is familiar with the OECD and UNDP due diligence frameworks. These will soon be complemented by a binding initiative of the European Commission to ensure sustainable EU value chains.

Q4. What would you describe as the biggest strength in Belgium-China relations?

I am personally convinced that the most fruitful exchanges happen through our people-to-people contacts. They foster dialogue and mutual understanding. Strengthening these links between our populations is part of our ambitions. It is true that the pandemic has put a stop to international mobility. However, our countries have a lot to offer each other and these exchanges should resume once the sanitary situation has stabilized. Belgium’s touristic assets are becoming popular among Chinese tourists. Brussels, the heart of Europe and the capital of 450 million Europeans, is one of the must-see destinations on our continent.

Q5. Are there any future goals that the European Union and China share and can align their strategies on, for example against climate change?

China is an essential partner on crucial issues such as economic recovery, climate change and environmental policy, as well as in the health sector. Only by mutually engaging on these cross-border issues can we obtain satisfactory long term results. This year will be important for environmental issues with the organization of the COP15 on biodiversity in China and COP26 on climate change in Glasgow. Belgium will be there to support strong commitments in this area. Ecological transition also opens up new avenues for bilateral cooperation.  Belgian expertise in clean-tech, low-emission infrastructure and water treatment is already recognized in China. It can support the Chinese commitment to fight against global warming.

Q6. Have you ever visited China? What surprised you the most about the country and its people?

Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to visit China but I would be happy to get more insights about this multifaceted country.