Belgium shows its confidence in Belt and Road
This year is the 10 anniversary of the 2008 calamity of Wall Street, following the fall of the Lehman Brothers, which caused the chronic global financial crisis and economic recession. The recent global stock market plunges, again originating in the United States, have been an unwelcome reminder of their volatility.
However, my recent trip to Zeebrugge, a medium-sized sea port in Belgium, showed that a crisis can be transformed into a long chain of opportunities if visionary decisions can be made.
The opportunities began in 2010, in the depth of the financial crisis in Europe, when China's automaker Geely acquired Volvo and the Sweden-based company's car operation in Belgium's Ghent, injecting them with new vitality.
That started a Sino-Belgian chain reaction with Belgium making good use of its European gateway position and finding synergies with China's Belt and Road Initiative.
The Port of Zeebrugge, about sixty kilometers away from Volvo's Ghent operation, is among those following Geely and Volvo's pioneering steps to bring China and Belgium closer.
Since last July, thousands of the S90L, Volvo's flagship model, manufactured in the company's Daqing plant in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province, have been sent to Zeebrugge port by rail and from there, the cars have been distributed to various European markets.
Heading the other way are the Volvo XC60 and V40, as well as auto parts.
That has put the advantages of Zeebrugge into full swing. And the authorities of Zeebrugge are aiming even higher by deepening ties with China's mega-shipping company COSCO Shipping.
On Jan 22, COSCO Shipping signed an agreement with Port of Zeebrugge for the 50 year concession terms of CSP Zeebrugge Terminal, with COSCO Shipping owning 90 percent of the terminal's share and the CMA, a French shipping line, taking 10 percent.
The second-largest port in Belgium, the Port of Zeebrugge is a natural deepwater harbor and has a good network of road and rail connections across Europe.
At the signing ceremony, Kris Peeters, Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Work, Economic Affairs and Consumer Affairs, pointed to CSP's investment and last year's opening of a direct train connection between the port and the city of Daqing as proof that China is becoming more significant to Belgium as a trading partner.
Zeebrugge is expected to be main northern European hub for China's Belt and Road Initiative with Piraeus Port in Greece the southern hub.
The deal could offer direct and indirect jobs amounting to five to 600 for the Belgian port, which is the main port for car transportation in Europe and a key port for food handling.
Surely, the port's throughput will grow as China is importing more from Europe to meet various demands of its big market, where the size of middle-income group is about 400 million right now. That equals the total of the United States and Japan, the world's largest and third-largest economies respectively.
Belgium, with merely half of Beijing's population, is also deepening its air connectivity with China. Following the direct Shanghai-Brussels flight route launched last year, direct flight between Shenzhen and Brussels will begin in March. Hainan Airline has operated a direct flight between Beijing and Brussels for a number of years.
Belgium also became a member of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank last year.
The Belgian government and its businesses have clearly made the visionary decision to deepen ties with China. And data indicate the decision is paying off. The trade volume between China and Belgium reached $23.3 billion in 2017, 7.8 percent growth year-on-year, with China's imports from Belgium increasing faster than its exports to the country. This is significant for Belgium, which is a country that relies on trade.
Surely, the evolution of Belgium-China economic ties in recent years can serve as evidence that deeper connectivity is good for bilateral or international relations.
And that mutually beneficial momentum can be only maintained if there is the political will and wisdom to do so, especially with the international situation at a historically tricky and critical moment.
The author is deputy chief of China Daily European Bureau.