From being just a gateway to the European market, Belgium now plays a crucial role in building a bridge that links China with the EU. And by strengthening their relations, the two countries set a model for Asia-EU cooperation
While the Sino-European relationship is strengthening day by day, Belgium is playing a crucial role in giving an excellent example of a fruitful collaboration between Asia and Europe.
In the last two decades, Brussels opened its doors to China developing an increasing exchange between the two countries, thus creating a bridge that connects the Middle Kingdom with the center of Europe. Not only it is considered a special gateway to the European market, but Belgium actually represents a real partner for what concerns the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Belgium was the first Western country to provide China with interest-free loans and also the first country to establish an industrial cooperation fund with the PRC. As a result, today, the country is China’s sixth largest trading partner in the EU, whose bilateral trade volume once exceeded $30 billion.
Over the years, in fact, Brussels has actively carried out project investment in the Celestial Empire in fields such as medicine, equipment, chemical, and IT industries. Moreover, both sides have worked together on a number of joint ventures and created some well-known brands in China, including Xian Janssen Pharmaceutical and Guangzhou Zhujiang Brewery Group.
For what concerns the financial sector, in 2004, the first industrial investment fund between the two countries – China-Belgium Direct Equity Investment Fund – was established. In addition, in 2011, both the Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China opened branches in Brussels.
© Chinese General Administration of Customs, China’s Ministry of Commerce. China-Belgium bilateral trade from 2012 to 2016.
In particular, Wallonia is the Belgian autonomous region, which plays the most significant role in the relationship. Here, in October 2018, on the occasion of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the twinning between the Walloon Region and Henan Province, a new cargo train route linking the Belgian city of Liège to Zhengzhou was launched.
The China-Europe freight train for cross-border e-commerce actually departed from Zhengzhou – the capital of Central China’s Henan Province – on March 2, 2019. As the first of its kind to be used at a regular frequency in Belgium, its inauguration marked a new phase in the development of the relationship between the two provinces. A relationship that has been enhanced by cooperation agreements signed by Wallonia Export-Investment Agency (AWEX) and the Henan Province in support of the BRI.
Indeed, since the first official meeting in 2013, at the initiative of the AWEX, the relationship between Henan and Wallonia strengthened year after year, thus allowing new projects to be developed in the logistics and tourism sectors, as well as for cooperation in the agronomics and animal health fields.
The rail freight connection is just one of the many initiatives launched in the area to connect the European country with the People’s Republic and it is complementary to the air link between Zhengzhou and Liège airport, which today represents Belgium’s largest air freight hub, and Europe’s 8th-largest cargo airport.
© Awex. Pierre-Yves Jeholet, Vice-Président of Walloon government, and Mr. Jinping He, Vice Governor of Henan Province, launch the new Europe-China block train route between Liège (Belgium) and Zhengzhou (China).
Although it is an inland region, Wallonia is found to be a special gateway to the European market thanks not only to the best-connected network of seaports and airports in the area but also thanks to the launch of the first EU-China Logistics Incubator.
Signed at the end of 2017, the initiative was launched by the Walloon government and co-founded by AWEX, Logistics in Wallonia – the official cluster of Wallonia region for logistics companies – and the Liège Airport, which is the incubator’s base.
The Eu-China Logistics Initiative was born to support all Chinese logistics providers and companies to start their business in Wallonia, as well as in the European market. The aim is to provide a favorable environment to establish business and logistics activities in a strategic region where enterprises can easily expand in both the European market and neighboring areas. Therefore, considering Wallonia as a bridge between China and Europe, the initiative provides all the services required by cross-border e-commerce such as easy access to the infrastructures, local partners or government services.
Last year, Chinese investment in Wallonia reached $397 million (€351 million), top place in foreign investments in 2018. The region is thus more serious than ever in trying to make the life of enterprises entering Belgium easier than any other place in Europe.
For its part, in fact, the Walloon government has invested a lot in building infrastructures fully dedicated to trading and with a strong customs department. Therefore, many companies already choose Liège Airport to enter the EU market over other destinations.
As a key part of the agreement between Alibaba and Belgium to support cross-border trade by building logistics infrastructure, Liège has been chosen by the e-commerce titan’s logistics unit Cainiao as one of the five international big hubs that will serve as a world-class smart shipping center inside the airport starting in 2021.
© Liège Airport. Alibaba’s Cainiao and Liège Airport signed a contract to lease a 220,000 sq mt area, which will serve as a world-class smart shipping hub inside the airport.
Belgium established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic in 1971, and since 2000, the two countries developed close high-level interactions. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of China-Belgium diplomatic ties in 2011, then-Vice President Xi Jinping described the steady development of the relationship as based on mutual respect, equality, and caring for each other’s core interests.
However, it was only when Xi officially visited Belgium for the first time as a President in 2014, that the Sino-Belgian relations started to improve into an extensive partnership and cooperation. Since then, the Dragon always regarded Brussels as a significant partner within the EU and Belgium, on its part, promised to be the Nothern bridge between the two sides.
Early in April, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang attended the 21st EU-China summit in Brussels where EU and China agreed to a joint statement confirming their strategic intent and efforts for more resilient cooperation in the framework of mutual respect and economic growth.
Today, the country’s importance in international relations is not only due to its location at the center of the Old Continent though. Being home to the European Union headquarters, Brussels is also crucial for European affairs. Therefore, its proximity to the EU commission and to the EU big players such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands, are what makes the region a hot spot for foreign businesses.
It is no coincidence that, in order to ensure the security offered by its technology and to reassure EU governments, the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has decided to set up an IT security office right in the capital of EU decision-making, Brussels. Thanks to this Cybersecurity Transparency Center, Huawei’s foreign partners will be able to examine the Shenzhen company’s IT security solutions, a sign of the Dragon’s strong intent to work with European partners.
© Unsplash. According to data, today, China has already become the third-largest export market for Belgian beer.
The EU was China’s biggest trading partner last year, while China was the EU’s second largest. With the increasing number of Chinese companies entering the global market, more and more countries are striving to welcome both the products and investments from the Middle Kingdom.
Among these countries, Belgium, with the help of the Wallonia region, managed to stand out building a network of infrastructures and services to support companies that wish to do business in Europe, therefore, building a bridge between the two continents, which is the first of its kind in Europe.
The country not only welcomes the largest amount of products from China but its location at the heart of the commerce triangle formed by Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Paris and its proximity to EU stakeholders make the process of building new contexts and partnerships with the Middle Kingdom easier.
Compared with other parts of Europe, Belgium has lower production preparation costs, land development costs, and transportation costs, and has an absolute advantage in logistics and transportation. In addition, the EU-China Logistics Incubator is about to create a complete e-commerce ecosystem that would enhance the flow of goods between the two countries.
Therefore, Belgium not only represents the perfect partner in the Belt and Road Initiative but it is also an example of how fruitful the Asia-Europe relationship could turn.
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