De Croo and Lahbib's mission to China aims to re-establish high-level contacts
Prime minister Alexander De Croo and Foreign inister Hadja Lahbib will travel to China for a significant diplomatic mission this week. This is the first high-level visit to China since 2019.
Lahbib is scheduled to arrive in Shanghai on Tuesday, with a primary focus on fostering economic contacts. She will join De Croo in Beijing on Thursday. In the Chinese capital, crucial political meetings are slated with president Xi Jinping, premier Li Qiang and Zhao Leji, leader of the People's Congress. The discussions are expected to cover various aspects of Sino-Belgian relations, as communicated by De Croo's office in December.
Following Princess Astrid's economic mission in 2019, the subsequent Covid-19 crisis stemming from Wuhan led to a significant decline in contacts between the two countries. The upcoming visit is a chance to re-establish high-level connections.
"Our relationship with China is characterised by three components, as specified by the European Union," said De Croo. "China is simultaneously a partner, a competitor and a rival. This necessitates cooperation in certain domains and vigilance in others."
De Croo addressed the media last month, particularly in response to questions surrounding a former Vlaams Belang politician's involvement with Chinese intelligence services. The incident raised concerns about Beijing's attempts at interference in Europe, which De Croo deemed "unacceptable" and plans to address during the visit.
A year ago, Belgium reported a cyberattack launched by a "Chinese group". In 2021, former Foreign minister Sophie Wilmès engaged with the Chinese ambassador, after MP Samuel Cogolati found himself on a Beijing sanctions list after passing a resolution warning of the "risk of genocide" against the Uighurs in China.
In terms of trade, Belgium is the seventh-largest importer and exporter to and from China within Europe. Chinese companies hold strategic positions in the Belgian economy, with Volvo Car in Ghent owned by the Geely group and Cosco's presence in the ports of Zeebrugge and Antwerp, along with Alibaba's distribution centre in Liège.
Due to Chinese companies' links to intelligence agencies, certain investments have raised concerns. Last year, Belgium implemented a mechanism to screen potentially risky foreign investments, drawing criticism from Beijing. The Chinese ambassador expressed discontent with perceived "double standards" and warned of potential hesitancy among Chinese companies to invest.
A Sino-European summit was held in Beijing last month, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen cautioning against the trade imbalance. Europe is currently facing a 400 billion euro trade deficit with China. For Belgium, the estimated trade deficit stands at 27 billion euros.
© BELGA PHOTO BENOIT DOPPAGNE