As the Flemish economic representative( Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) in Beijing, Koen De Ridder, offers expert advice and tailor-made assistance to Chinese companies wishing to set up or develop their activities in Flanders, Belgium and Europe. It also provides two-way information on local and Belgian business environments, economic trends and changing sectors. As such, it takes a practical approach to help Chinese and Belgian companies identify the best opportunities for entrepreneurship and achieve their international business ambitions.Its main objective is to bring together networks of influential companies, agents, industry federations, authorities and institutions in the pursuit of international business growth, engagement and mutually rewarding relationships.

Here, LHCH extracts the most interesting passages from an interview conducted by Belgian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (BCECC)

Before joining FIT for the 2nd time in your career, you were responsible for international business at UNIZO (the large entrepreneurial network in Flanders and Brussels). How do you consider the current economic environment from the perspective of Flemish/Belgian companies?

Koen De Ridder: the members of UNIZO are usually small business owners, and as such, they truly are the backbone of our society. Being a small enterprise, I quickly noticed, does not mean international inactivity or a lack of global awareness. On the contrary indeed! The most truly international people I met were small business owners and SME leaders. I was struck by the fact that, for many among them, China was very much on the radar, albeit not necessarily for export purposes, but rather as a supplier for parts, finished products and raw materials.

Not surprising that China is the 5th largest supplier of Flanders! (…)

About Sino-Belgian relations. How do you see this from your perspective?

Koen De Ridder: In 2021, Belgium and China celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations. Belgium was one of the first Western countries to cooperate with China, and some Flemish companies have been contributing to China’s development in their own ways. In this context we think of Xi’an Janssen Pharmaceutical, one of the top 10 joint ventures in China, and Bekaert, which set up production platforms in Chongqing, Huizhou, Jiangyin, Qingdao, Shenyang, Suzhou, Weihai, Hangzhou, Taicang, Jining and Shanghai. Another Flemish company which made a tremendous impact on China is Anheuser-Busch InBev, which first entered China in 1984 by investing in a Guangzhou brewery and which from 1998 on formed partnerships with a number of leading Chinese brewers in a variety of Chinese cities.

Trade relations between Belgium and China have grown tremendously as well, and China is currently Belgium’s sixth-largest trading partner, making up about 4.1 percent of Belgium’s trade. Belgium is China’s sixth-largest trading partner in the European Union, and trade between Belgium and China has grown 16.4 percent over the past 10 years. When we look at the region of Flanders specifically, we see that in 2021 our region exported for more than 7 billion euro worth of goods to China.
Moreover, economic, diplomatic and intercultural exchanges between our two countries have also developed strongly.

What would be your advice to Belgian our other European companies when they consider coming to China? Or should they still consider coming to China in the first place, taking into account the current geopolitical challenges and the economic slowdown?

Koen De Ridder: One of the aspects I love about my job is that that my “clients” – the entrepreneurs and export managers – tend to be optimistic by nature. And indeed, we have reason to be optimistic. China is an emerging world power and therefore it remains an important export market. No doubt about that. I also think that companies who are already successfully doing business in China will continue doing so, despite the new hurdles and challenges caused by Covid.

China was never an easy export market to begin with, but over the years I did see many successful export stories. The difference was often made by a good local partner. But before thinking of finding a partner, one needs first to sit down and think carefully about a strategy. I urge companies only to come to China after giving this market a firm place in their international strategy. Resources and time will have to be invested and a great deal of knowledge and information will need to be collected by attending master classes, networking events, lectures and presentations.

For ambitious companies without China experience, now is the time to study, observe and get prepared. For companies which are already in China, it is important to remain engaged with their local partners by digital means. It is not ideal, I know, but it is better than nothing and after all, this situation is only temporary. Last but not least, make use of the China-network of Flanders Investment & Trade. We are there to assist our exporters, free of charge, and we can help them to connect with potential partners.

(Source : Belgian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (BCECC))