Vietnam-Belgium relations: 50 years of trust, substance and effectiveness

WVR - On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Belgium (March 22, 1973 - 2023), Vietnamese Ambassador to Belgium Nguyen Van Thao shares his thoughts in an interview to The World & Vietnam Report.
Thủ tướng Chính phủ Phạm Minh Chính và Thủ tướng Vương quốc Bỉ Alexander De Croo. (Nguồn: TTXVN)
Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in Belgium in December 2022. (Source: VNA)

2023 is a special year as it marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Belgium. Over half a century, cooperation between the two countries has yielded fruitful outcomes in many fields. In your opinion, what are the key milestones in Vietnam-Belgium cooperation?

Belgium is a small country with a population of just over 10 million people, but it is the 'heart of Europe'. Vietnam and Belgium established diplomatic relations on March 23, 1973.

Over half a century, the two countries have laid down a solid foundation for comprehensive cooperation, from politics and diplomacy to economic and cultural ties and people-to-people exchanges.

The two countries have been Strategic Partners in Agriculture since 2018. Both sides conduct regular exchange of high-level delegations and effectively maintain cooperation mechanisms. Most recent engagements are the official visit to Belgium by Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (December 2022), the 6th meeting of the Joint Economic Commission (November 2022), and the visit to Vietnam of the Minister-President of the Government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation (October 2022). Both sides are preparing for the upcoming visits to Vietnam by Her Majesty the Queen of Belgium in her capacity as the Patron of UNICEF Belgium (May 2023) and by the Minister-President of Flanders and accompanying business delegation (September 2023).

Belgium is Vietnam's 6th largest trading partner in the European Union (EU). According to data from the Belgian side, in 2022, the two-way trade turnover exceeded 6 billion euros, up by 60% compared to 2021.

Regarding investment, Belgium currently has 82 projects with a total registered capital of nearly 1.1 billion USD, ranking 23rd out of 139 countries and territories investing in Vietnam. Notable projects are the Soc Son waste-to-energy plant and the Hai Phong International Container Terminal (HICT).

Belgium has also been an ODA donor to Vietnam since 1977, with grants amounting to 20-25 million annually. Currently, Belgium continues to support Vietnam through university cooperation programs, NGOs, and the private sector. To date, about 5,000 Vietnamese students have studied at universities in Belgium.

Besides cooperation at the federal government level, cooperation between Vietnam and Belgian regions has also recorded remarkable achievements. The regions of Wallonia and Flanders have official representative offices in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese localities have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with Belgian regions.

On multilateral cooperation, the two countries have worked in close coordination and mutual support at regional and international forums, such as the United Nations, Francophonie, and ASEM.

The two countries were both non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council for the 2020-2021 term and will be members of the Human Rights Council for the same term of 2023-2024. Both sides have worked closely together and regularly exchanged information.

Belgium enjoys a very important role and voice in the EU, and will assume the EU Presidency in the first half of 2024. This will facilitate cooperation between Belgium and Vietnam, particularly within the EU and ASEAN frameworks.

Thus, it can be said that the two countries have cultivated a close and enduring relationship of mutually beneficial cooperation. This is a very proud achievement, as well as a very good foundation to continue to elevate Vietnam-Belgium relations to new heights.

Please describe the Vietnam-Belgium relationship in three words and explain your choice?

The three words are 'trust', 'substance' and 'efficacy'.

I choose “trust” as the first word because over half a century, the two countries have laid down firm foundations for the relationship. The close political ties and mutual trust have been continuously strengthened through high-level visits and those at other levels, cooperation mechanisms not only between Belgium and Vietnam but also between Vietnam and the EU, of which Belgium is an important member.

The “subtance” of cooperation between the two countries is illustrated by the impressive achievements in key areas, as in line with the potentials, strengths and needs of each side. These include trade, investment, infrastructure, and agriculture.

Through trust and substantive cooperation, the two countries' relations have been highly effective and deepened step by step, thus delivering benefits to both sides.

Đại sứ Nguyễn Văn Thảo trả lời phỏng vấn phóng viên Thông tán xã Việt Nam. (Nguồn: TTXVN)
H.E. Nguyen Van Thao, Ambassador of Vietnam to Belgium. (Source: VNA)

Vietnam and Belgium are Strategic Partners in Agriculture, and Belgium is Vietnam's 6th largest trading partner in the EU. As digital and green transformation has become a megatrend, how should the two countries harness their respective strengths for such transformation?

As mentioned above, Belgium is an important trade partner of Vietnam and has been a Strategic Partner in Agriculture since 2018. Belgium’s strengths lie in high technology, especially in agriculture, digital and green transformation.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has put in place development policies for these sectors. Vietnam enjoys an advantageous geopolitical position, huge potential in terms of market, labor and raw materials, a dynamic economy in robust transition, and a strong regional and global standing as recognized by international partners.

Regarding agricultural cooperation, the two sides enjoy complementarity in agricultural production. However, agricultural cooperation is not limited to trade in agricultural goods.

Future Vietnam-Belgium agricultural cooperation should aim at building a complete value chain, from cooperation in research, technology transfer, development of plant and animal breeds, planning for raw material production areas, feed, and fertilizers, to cultivation, harvesting, preservation, processing, product packaging, logistics, transportation, and building a network of consumption and distribution.

This entire value chain will help us build a modern, sustainable agricultural economy that approaches international standards.

Currently, the two countries are cooperating on the production of biomass and activated charcoal from coconut shells and agricultural by-products, and advancing important projects such as a cold chain for preservation of agricultural products in the Mekong Delta.

The second important area of cooperation with Belgium is semiconductor chip production. Belgium is home to large technology (R&D) centers of renown, which were established several decades ago and are now semiconductor suppliers for leading technology companies in the world such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google. I am glad to note that Belgium also considers Vietnam a potential partner of the region and both sides have signed an MoU on cooperation in the development of semiconductor capacity in Vietnam.

In addition, there is great cooperation potential in other important fields such as renewable energy (green hydrogen), logistics, construction of modern seaports, and healthcare. These are all areas that Belgium has the advantage and Vietnam has need.

Belgium is a European logistics hub, with the port of Antwerp-Zeebrugges being the largest container port on the continent. It is home to major pharmaceutical companies (such as Pfizer), healthcare and biotechnology research institutes, and leading companies in green hydrogen production. Some large Belgian companies, such as John Cockerill, are intending to move their regional centers to Vietnam and invest in green hydrogen, logistics, and R&D in Vietnam.

There remains ample room for future cooperation. However, to seize the opportunity, it is necessary to make thorough preparations and appropriate investments. The Belgian side stands ready to cooperate with Vietnam.

On our part, Vietnam needs to be ready in terms of business environment, policies, human resources, and infrastructure, among others, to enhance value and competitive advantage.

Đại sứ Nguyễn Văn Thảo, Phó Thủ hiến - Bộ trưởng Kinh tế và Ngoại thương Vùng Wallonia, ông Willy Borsus cùng các đại biểu thăm xưởng sản xuất máy móc điều trị ung thư của công ty IBA.
Vietnamese Ambassador to Belgium Nguyen Van Thao, Minister-President of Wallonia Willy Borsus and other delegates visit cancer treatment solutions at IBA. (Source: VNA)

This year, a range of activities and events will be held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Can you share some information on the activities and events planned by the Embassy and your expectations as to how these activities will further stimulate the growth of bilateral relations?

The 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations is an important occasion to review past achievements and identify future directions for Vietnam-Belgium cooperation. Both sides have expressed great interest and are working closely to organize practical, effective and meaningful activities.

Following the very successful visit to Belgium by Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in December 2022 and the visit of the Minister of Planning and Investment Nguyen Chi Dung in February 2023, the two sides continue promoting exchange of visits and effectively maintaining cooperation mechanisms.

A number of Belgian leaders, from Deputy Prime Minister, Ministers to leaders and businesses from different regions are expected to visit Vietnam this year. Leaders of various regions are working closely with the Embassy to draft concrete action plans on cooperation between Vietnam and Belgian regions.

According to the celebration proposal for the 50th anniversary of Vietnam-Belgium diplomatic relations in 2023, many ministries, branches and localities will hold diverse activities to promote the relationship to all people. The Embassy will maintain coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, branches, localities and the Belgian side with regards to these activities.

The Embassy expects to hold events to promote trade, the country and people of Vietnam, as well as a joint culinary festival, within the framework of the 50th anniversary celebration and the Vietnam Day in Belgium.

Despite the geographical distance, the two countries have been close to one another and shared similarities in culture, people and cuisine. When we raised the idea of a Vietnam-Belgium culinary festival with Belgian friends, they were very keen on it.

This April, the Mayor of Namur will lead a group of stilt walkers to Vietnam to attend the Hue Festival. Promoting cultural exchange enhances mutual understanding between our two peoples, thereby facilitating cooperation in other fields.

We are also planning to coordinate with the Ministry of Education and Training as well as interested ministries, sectors and localities to organize the Vietnam-Belgium Education Forum. This event is aimed at making quality education from Belgian universities more accessible to Vietnamese students and graduate students as well as expanding cooperation and links between universities, research institutes, innovation centers and start-up incubators of both sides.

I believe that these activities will encourage efforts from both sides to enhance mutual understanding and discover new opportunities, thereby opening a new chapter in the extensive and mutually beneficial cooperation between Vietnam and Belgium.

Thank you, Ambassador!

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