Largest economic mission ever goes to China this week


More than 600 representatives from politics, academics and business are in China on Belgium’s largest-ever economic mission

10th biggest export market

More than 600 politicians, academics, business leaders and researchers have embarked on a trip to China in the largest economic mission Belgium has ever launched. Economic missions are crucial in putting local representatives in direct contact with counterparts overseas, or are used as an opportunity to close deals that have been months or years in the making.

While China is a global economic powerhouse, the west still has specific services to offer, according to Bart Horsten, CEO of Horsten International in Turnhout, which assists small and medium-sized businesses to break into the Chinese market.

“By the time a European company launches a product, it is completely ready for the market,” Horsten told Trends. “A Chinese company launches a product much more quickly, even if it’s not ready, in order to win as much market share as possible. They figure they’ll improve the technology after the fact. But you can guess what happens. Look, for example, and the unmanned stores that opened in China with great fanfare. Three months later, many of them have disappeared, because of technical defects.”

Flanders in Hong Kong

Representatives from Belgium had their first meetings yesterday, and the mission will run until the end of the week. The entire delegation is visiting Beijing and Shanghai, while a Flemish mission will then continue to Hong Kong.

Several events have already taken place. Claire Tillekaerts, CEO of Flanders Investment and Trade has, for instance, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sichuan province to promote economic bonds between the regions. She also joined Antwerp provincial governor Cathy Berx for a seminar on cleantech.

Flemish minister-president Jan Jambon (N-VA), meanwhile, gave a speech together with China’s ecology minister Li Ganjie on the role of tech innovations in a transition to sustainable societies. “We can and will tackle climate challenges with innovation and technology without destroying the prosperity that out parents and grandparents have built,” he told Trends just before leaving for China. “On top of that, climate change is a global problem. We must export Flemish innovation and technology to the rest of the world.”

We can and will tackle climate challenges with innovation and technology, and export it to the rest of the world

- Minister-president Jan Jambon

Pascal Smet, meanwhile ( - SP.A), is representing Brussels as state secretary for foreign trade in the capital-region. “During this mission we created a new relationship with Shenzhen, the city of the future,” he tweeted yesterday. “And we are reinforcing existing ties with Beijing. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the partnership between Brussels and Beijing.”

Shenzhen is China’s silicon valley and is opening a business incubator in Brussels next month. The Shenzhen Innovation House will help smooth the path for Chinese start-ups to offer their services in Europe.

China is Belgium’s 10th biggest export market, with nearly €7 billion of goods and services exported to the country every year. Flanders is responsible for a large majority of the exports, with pharmaceuticals, industrial machinery and transport material the biggest markets. More than double comes from China to Belgium – about €15.1 billion in imports.

In 2018, China invested €378 million in Flanders-based activities, making it the fifth largest investor in the region. More than half of that went to the automotive industry. There are currently 86 Chinese firms active in Flanders.

At the mission’s opening ceremony, from left: Princess Astrid of Belgium, federal minister of foreign affairs Didier Reynders, federal foreign affairs minister Pieter De Crem, Walloon foreign trade minister Willy Borsus, Brussels state secretary of foreign trade Pascal Smet and Flemish foreign affairs minister and minister-president Jan Jambon
©Dirk Waem/BELGA