In a reflection of her fruitful assignment, we had the honor of speaking with Ambassador Roxane de Bilderling, as she concludes her time in Japan in July. With a rich history of friendship and shared potential for growth, we explore the remarkable ties and milestones during her tenure, highlighting the positive strides in strengthening bilateral cooperation between Belgium and Japan.
Bridges: How would you characterize the current relations between Belgium and Japan?
Ambassador Roxane de Bilderling: Friendly, solid and bursting with potential. Relations between Belgium and Japan go back more than 150 years ago. They are marked by strong friendship ties between our Royal and Imperial families who have visited each other on several occasions. Last December, H.R.H. Princess Astrid came to Japan to lead a major economic mission. More than 575 participants joined this mission which was the largest ever organized by Belgium in Japan. It resulted in many field visits, the signing of agreements, both in the economic and the academic fields, and important bilateral contacts with the Japanese authorities. It will guide our work for the coming years, especially in the energy sector where we see a potential for common projects, for example in hydrogen or offshore wind. I certainly notice that our bilateral relations have grown stronger and this is also because we understand how important it is, in a context of grave violations of the international order, to nurture the friendships we have with like-minded countries. Japan has raised its profile on the international scene, especially in the wake of the G7 Hiroshima Summit, and has enhanced its partnership both with the EU and NATO, two international organisations hosted by Belgium.
Belgium has been recognized as an investment destination and European headquarters for Japanese companies. Could you elaborate on Belgium’s role in attracting Japanese investments and its importance as a transportation hub?
We are indeed home to a number of leading Japanese companies, both for their European headquarters as well as in the logistics industry and other sectors. Belgium’s strategic location in the heart of Europe, coupled with its robust infrastructure and business-friendly environment, has made it an attractive investment destination. Around 80 % of Europe’s purchasing power is concentrated within an 800 km radius from Brussels. Our country’s well-developed transport infrastructure provides excellent connectivity for trade between Japan and Europe. The Port of Antwerp-Bruges, for instance, is an important entry point for Japanese goods into the European market, and many Japanese companies have set up a factory or office in or near the port. Many Japanese firms have their headquarters for Europe, often also including the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), in our country. Belgium is home to the European institutions and Belgians are multilingual and open for cooperation and comprise. I believe these qualities help us convince foreign companies to invest in our country.
What sectors do you see as having the most potential for growth and collaboration between Japan and Belgium in the coming years?
These last few years, we have seen strong growth in biotechnology & pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, and digital technology. These three sectors also featured prominently during the economic mission in December. I believe these industries hold great potential for further collaboration between Japan and Belgium. The digital and energy transitions are high on the political agenda, and the 2020 pandemic was a reminder of the challenges we face in global health, requiring innovative solutions in life sciences. Other sectors such as the food & beverage industry and the chemical industry are getting a boost thanks to the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that entered into force in 2019. I do expect to see further growth as a result of lower tariffs and fewer trade barriers that the EPA has brought about.
Could you highlight some notable success stories or accomplishments of Belgian companies or institutions in the Japanese market?
Several Belgian companies and institutions have achieved success in the Japanese market. Leading companies such as Union Chimique Belge (UCB), Puratos or Solvay, have established a strong presence in Japan for several decades and have offices and production facilities throughout the country. A recent example is Imec, a world-leading research and innovation hub for nanoelectronics and digital technologies. It has a long tradition working with the Japanese semiconductor industry and during last year’s economic mission, it signed a Memorandum of Collaboration with Rapidus, Japan’s newly founded chip manufacturer. Other companies have opened an office in Tokyo following the economic mission, while still others are on the verge of signing contracts with local companies. I could go on as there are many examples of successful collaboration, but suffice to say that Japan is an important partner for our country.
How can Japan and Belgium collaborate in the fields of sustainable development and renewable energy?
Japan and Belgium can collaborate in different ways, by for instance sharing best practices or working together on research and development. In fact, we are already doing exactly that. Japanese firms have invested heavily in offshore wind in the Belgian North Sea, and our offshore wind companies are now actively exploring the Japanese market. A good example of this trend is Belgian dredging firm DEME, which has established a joint-venture with Penta-Ocean to work on Japan’s nascent offshore wind parks. Other companies are working together on hydrogen technology in Belgium and Japan, as both countries have developed ambitious hydrogen strategies. Furthermore, exchanging knowledge and expertise on government policies and regulations can help to promote a greener future. We are in close touch with the Japanese government to see how we can work together in the green transition.
How has Belgian cuisine, known for its chocolates, beers, and waffles, been received in Japan? What steps have been taken to spread the love for Belgian gastronomy and boost its popularity in the Japanese market?
It’s true that we share with Japan a common appreciation of gastronomy, “omotenashi” and quality products. We like good food and I think that Belgium has done a good job in disseminating its food culture in Japan. Major Belgian chocolate and beer brands are present in the country, there are also some restaurants serving Belgian cuisine, a major festival “The Belgian Beer weekend” has entered the Japanese event calendar, and we feel there is a real appreciation for our products. However, Belgium is more than just beer, waffles and chocolate. Our Prime Minister recently launched a new campaign called “Embracing Openness” which is meant to promote the Belgian brand through a different prism than the obvious one. Belgium has a long track record in the field of innovation. We have been a pioneer in biotech and semiconductor research, we also have a strong profile in offshore energy and the production of vaccines, and we want to lead the way, be open for innovation, be open to working with partners and with diversity at heart.