A diplomatic dispute has broken out between China and Belgium over concerns about Beijing’s rapidly increasing involvement in European infrastructure projects, according to a leaked diplomatic cable viewed by Politico.
The leaked document concerns a leaked demand by a Chinese official to Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hadja Lahbib, to retract comments made in an interview with Belgian newspapers L’Écho and De Tijd about the risk of Chinese commercial ships being “converted into warships for military equipment.”
A diplomat from the Chinese Embassy in Belgium is reported to have met with members of Belgium’s Foreign Ministry. During the meeting, the Chinese official criticised Lahbib’s comments and said that the minister should refrain from listening to “rumours.” China has asked Belgium to retract the interview, which the ministry has so far declined to do.
In an apparent threat, the Chinese diplomat noted that the value of trade between Chinese and Belgian ports was lucrative for Belgium, and suggested that this trade could be stopped.
The affair comes just days after the discovery of clandestine Chinese police stations operating in the Netherlands and other European countries, used by China to coerce and blackmail dissidents living abroad.
There are growing concerns about how China may seek to use its infrastructure investments to further its espionage and influence across Europe.
Cosco, a major Chinese shipping and logistics company, is expanding within Europe and buying up stakes in major European ports. The German government recently agreed to sell a stake of one of its cargo terminals in the port of Hamburg to Cosco. Lahbib, reacting to the rapid Chinese investment in European logistical infrastructure, has previously talked of the need to “reduce our strategic dependency on China.”
Cosco is already a majority shareholder of a container terminal in the Belgian port of Brugge.
Lahbib’s concerns about China exploiting infrastructure appears to refer to a recent report by Jonathan Holslag, a professor at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), who warned of China's maritime sector exploiting Belgian ports.
This is not the first time that China has been accused of exploiting the use of infrastructure investments within Belgium. In 2021, the Belgian government investigated the possibility that Chinese agents were using the €100 million hub of online Chinese retailer Alibaba at Liège Airport to access “sensitive and secure areas of the airport.”