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Belgium's mixed signals to China

By Fu Jing (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2015-04-12 14:38

Former prime minister shocked that government did not apply to become founding member of new bank

Belgium's former prime minister Elio Di Rupo expressed both excitement and regret during an exclusive interview with China Daily about two crucial decisions involving Beijing.

Di Rupo says he has been delighted to see how quickly China had moved two of its pandas to Belgium. In a matter of 24 hours after he met with Premier Li Keqiang in September 2013, the 15-year loan was agreed upon and in less than a year, the two pandas had arrived in Belgium.

The two pandas came to Belgium's Pairi Daiza Zoo in February of last year, with King Philippe of Belgium and President Xi Jinping unveiling the panda garden a month later.

He says he can't believe that the pandas have already been living in Belgium for a year, noting "how time flies". The deal, he adds, is an exact reflection of the nations' close bilateral ties.

Currently the mayor of Mons, Di Rupo is aiming to promote the city through this year's European Capital of Culture program. According to the European Union, the title of European Capital of Culture is "awarded to two cities from two EU member states with the aim of supporting European cultural cooperation".

But regret kicks in when Di Rupo talks about the Belgian government's reluctance to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has attracted applications from more than 50 countries thus far.

Admitting he is not tracking the new bank issue, Di Rupo is shocked his country didn't apply. He says he will ask the national government and Prime Minister Charles Michel why Belgium did not follow in the footsteps of other Western European countries who have applied.

That same day, I also met Zhang Haiyan, director of Neoma Business School's Confucius Institute in Rouen, France, and he concluded that Beijing's leading role in setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has resulted in split opinions within some Western countries, though he doesn't believe Belgium is being cautious because of its close ties with China.

A level of caution, however, can be seen in the United States, which did not apply to be an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank founding member, though Jacob Lew, secretary of the US Treasury, paid a last-minute visit to Beijing before March 31, the deadline for submitting an application to the bank. Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright recently said Washington's decision not to seek membership was "miscalculated".

Some Belgians say it's financially infeasible for their country to apply to the new bank. Some say the Belgian government is in a difficult position trying coordinate all three of its regional governments. While it's believable that Greece is too financially strapped to apply to become a founding member, Belgium is not in the same position. When Belgian banks, among other European banks, were required to increase their saving ratios during the European sovereign debt crisis of 2011, Belgians responded swiftly.

I gather that Belgium's reluctance has resulted from a miscommunication among the parties. Of course, Belgium is different from the US, which is engaging China while attempting to contain it on many fronts.

There is likely an inefficiency in the decision-making process among Western countries, which has already sparked widespread criticism among experts.

Take their activities in fighting the financial crisis, for example. Many analysts have said that the long-standing debates among EU parties involved forced member countries to miss windows of opportunity in finding solutions and policy reinforcements, thus prolonging the crisis. Europe is still in economic stagnation.

I have been asking Europeans how the political system in Europe should be reformed to improve the decision-making process and avoid political instabilities, such as what's happening in Greece. Many shrug their shoulders and shake their heads. They have no answers but they do have a simple reply: This is Europe.

The author is China Daily chief correspondent in Brussels. Contact the writer at fujing@chinadaily.com.cn

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