Active approach of the Netherlands towards Belt and Road needed
After their second visit to China - a two-day working trip from Feb. 7 to 8 - Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima travelled to South Korea to attend the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. Accompanied by Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Halbe Zijlstra, they met with Premier Li Keqiang and had dinner with President Xi Jinping and his wife while in Beijing. In October 2015, the Dutch royals first visited China on the heels of Xi’s 2014 visit to the Netherlands, his first to a European country after taking office.
Diplomatic relations between the Netherlands and China have probably never been as good as they are at the moment. This does not necessarily mean that Sino-Dutch relations are special when compared to China’s relations with other European countries. The two countries are significant trade and investment partners, their direct trading relationship dates back some 400 years, and the Netherlands is among the founding members of the Asiatic Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a recent Chinese initiative. But these, or similar, elements can also be seen in China’s relations with several other Western European countries. Moreover, in recent years the focus of China’s diplomatic and economic activities in Europe has shifted in part to the countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
With the added advantage of the close personal ties between Xi and Willem-Alexander, the Netherlands is in a good position to further strengthen its relationship with China. This is important for the Dutch since China is the world’s largest trading nation, while for the Netherlands, foreign trade is an essential part of its economy. Given the significance of international trade flows for the Netherlands, and the priority assigned by China to its Belt and Road Initiative, the latter provides an obvious focal point. The Chinese initiative, which has been personally launched and strongly endorsed by Xi, has the potential to reshape global trade and investment patterns.
The Dutch port of Rotterdam is Europe’s largest seaport, and Schiphol Airport is the largest European hub for air cargo traffic with China. It is important for the Netherlands to retain a central role in traffic flows between Europe and the rest of the world. China will increasingly be a key partner for the Dutch in this regard. While further engagement with China on the Belt and Road Initiative is both unavoidable and necessary, this does not mean that the Netherlands can afford to take a wait-and-see approach.
The Netherlands should not miss the opportunity to have an influence on the shape of future trade and investment patterns. The initiative has come from the Chinese side, but the outcome should be a modern-day version of the Silk Road – a multilateral endeavour that is not dominated by any single actor. Individual European countries are too small to work with China towards a new Silk Road on an equal basis. However, the European Union can be a key partner for China in this regard. There is too much at stake for the Netherlands not to take up an active role in encouraging the EU and its member states to jointly produce a convincing narrative on the new Silk Road and Europe’s role in it, and a strategy on how to work with China and other actors to achieve this. Doing so would contribute to stronger relations between the EU and China, and would further enhance the Dutch role in this relationship.
This op-ed was originally published by CGTN as guest commentary.