A diplomat of character

Updated: 2011-05-20 11:04

By Mike Peters (China Daily European Weekly)

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Eighty percent?

A diplomat of character 

"Amazing, yes?" Nijs chuckles. "Belgium is the eighth-largest exporter in the world, and No 1 per capita."

That translates to 15 billion euros worth of bilateral trade with China, 9 billion euros in Chinese exports and 6 billion euros in Belgian goods and services.

"People tend to assimilate Belgium as a producer of chocolate, beer and diamonds," he says. "But we are extremely strong in chemicals, with the biggest chemical industrial parks in Europe. Basically, Belgians are engineers, so our biggest exports to China are chemicals and pharmaceuticals, but also machinery, diamonds and industrial equipment."

The great diamond-trading center at Antwerp also generates about 10 percent of the country's total exports to China, he says.

Brussels and Beijing celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations on Oct 26 this year - Belgium being one of the first Western European nations to open up to China after then US president Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1971 made the pending thaw between East and West evident and inevitable.

"We were also among the first to enter into joint ventures and technology transfer - and technology transfers were not easy then," Nijs says.

Transfers of Western technologies were aggressively monitored and two of Belgium's emblematic partnerships - Shanghai Bell and China Telecom - were highly scrutinized by regulators who "were not very happy about it", he adds.

The ambassador notes that another unusual aspect of the early joint ventures was Belgium's use of public money - development aid funds comprised a 7.8 percent share in Shanghai Bell. Brussels sold its public share in 2002 and used that capital to establish CBEIDF, the first Chinese equity fund established with foreign support.

"It's not surprising: Belgium is a multicultural society, so we are used to working with a different mindset, to compromise and to cooperate," he says of his nation, which has two official languages.

"We find it easy to respond to new opportunities."

Nijs is confident that the goodwill fostered by four decades of close relations, plus the residual effect of Belgium's successful pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010, plus a little royal buzz, will combine to maintain expanding ties between the two countries.

While it may not create as many headlines or fashion fuss as the recent wedding of British royals Prince William and Kate Middleton, a visit by Prince Philippe, Duke of Brabant and the country's crown prince, will be a highlight of bilateral events in October.

The crown prince has taken on a mission of business development, the ambassador says, and he comes to China every four years - now a key part of bilateral exchanges.

"When he started coming (in 2004), they were 'reasonable' missions," Nijs says. "Now it's become huge - he will come with 400 people. It's a logistical nightmare, but a unique opportunity to give a platform to all Belgian enterprises here."

Events celebrating the 40th anniversary will include concerts, academics, sports - about 20 projects, like art exchanges and a Belgian Gourmet Week in October. A kickoff concert for the anniversary year was held in January.

The Belgians will also co-host an Africa seminar, since Nijs's country has historically focused more on Africa than Asia, and China is now very active and interested in Africa.

Nijs also has a special interest in Africa: He was born in Congo in 1950.

"China has done everything imaginable to develop the economy - forcing the pace with a big infrastructure push," he says. "The results have been amazing, but that development model is quick but artificial.

"Now China needs a more organic approach," he says, that can be more integrated and sustainable.

"The key is how to focus on rural development instead of driving growth to the cities. We Belgians have that expertise."

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