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“New cycle of the relationship between China and Portugal”

Paulo Rego

The expert on relations between Macau and China with Portuguese-speaking countries, Ip Kuai Peng, recalls that the Macao SAR “has no external relations”; so Ho Iat Seng’s visit to Portugal is part of a “new cycle” of the strategic partnership “between China and Portugal”. The City University professor argues that this is the time for “Portugal to pay more attention to Macau”, the gateway to the “Greater Bay”, but “also to all of China”. This trip, he stresses, also serves to “recover the confidence of the Portuguese community in Macau in its future”

What political significance does Ho Iat Seng’s first visit abroad have in Portugal?
IP Kuai Peng
– First, this respects the importance of friendly relations between China and Portugal; then, it recognizes the special historical relationship between Macao and Portugal. After returning to China, successive Macao SAR governments attached great importance to friendship with Portugal; and the Chief Executive (CE) traditionally visits the Portuguese President. This visit is of great significance and the Macao SAR will also bring businessmen and journalists, promoting not only investment but also the legal systems of Macao SAR and Hengqin, with a view to strengthening cooperation in key areas such as education, science and technology, pharmaceuticals , blue economy… but also the attraction of investment and tourists. This visit also serves to regain the confidence of the Portuguese community in its future in Macau.

What is the specific importance of Portugal on the Portuguese-speaking platform?
– Macau has close and extensive ties with Portuguese-speaking countries, which cover four continents and have more than 200 million inhabitants. All Portuguese-speaking countries are very important to Macau, but Portugal has the most special relationship – and the greatest influence. Portuguese is the official language in Macau; architecture, festivals, cuisine… make a difference as a tourist attraction; and Portuguese products – wine, and others – stand out in retail sales. Portugal is a member of the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the World Trade Organization… and the Forum for Economic and Commercial Cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries (Forum Macau) activates several events where Macau plays a significant role.

Diplomatic relations between China and the United States – but also with Europe – are tense… Can Portugal help to ease them?
– The world has entered a new period of turbulence, with many factors of instability and uncertainty. This division, and confrontation, will lead humanity to a dead end. China and Portuguese-speaking countries, which have similar opportunities and challenges, need to unite and cooperate more than ever to overcome difficulties and together build a common future for humanity. Lusophone countries are an important force in the international community, and China has a long history of cooperation and friendship with them. Most of them joined the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, promoting a series of exchanges that reinforce mutual understanding. Macau maintains a close historical and cultural relationship with Portuguese-speaking countries; it has a similar administrative and legal system; and Portuguese as an official language… therefore it has unique advantages in the connection between China and Lusophony. The Central Government has positioned Macau as a platform for commercial and service cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking countries (the Platform), and Macau has always been a bridge connecting Portugal to China; and a window to the West to better understand the East.

There are those in Macau who see this as just an imposition by China; and some describe it as a competitive advantage. What’s your opinion?
– 86.2 percent of the population speak Cantonese fluently; 45 percent Mandarin; and only 2.3 percent Portuguese. Despite this limitation, the Portuguese language and culture are very unique assets, and a competitive advantage compared to the rest of China. Macau attracts Portuguese-speaking talent, and invests in the education and training of bilingual talent. Many Macao people are familiar with Lusophone culture, religion and customs. On the one hand, China has the opportunity here to learn how to better deal with Portuguese-speaking countries; on the other hand, it helps the economy and trade, enhancing socio-political and cultural understanding. Interchange with the West – particularly Portuguese-speaking countries – endows Macao with a unique cultural charm. The Historic Center of Macau – a world heritage site – showcases the Sino-Portuguese coexistence, which has also transformed Macau into a gastronomic city. The tangible and intangible heritage – unique – related to Portuguese culture, creates an unparalleled tourism and leisure destination, where eastern and western cultures mix.

There are those who criticize the Macau Government for being less committed to the Portuguese-speaking relationship than the Central Government itself…
– After Macao’s return to China, the Central Government unswervingly implemented the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, in the context of which Macao is governed with a high degree of autonomy – with fruitful results. However, according to the Basic Law, the Macao SAR does not have autonomy in foreign policy, which involves national sovereignty. Macau practices this principle with remarkable success, gradually evolving to be a bridge between China, Portugal, and the Portuguese-speaking countries, through economic, commercial and cultural cooperation. For a long time, Macau and the Portuguese Government promoted reciprocal visits, strengthening and consolidating friendly and cooperative relations. The Central Government attaches great importance to and supports these contacts. This visit arises in that tradition.

Can China reinforce Macau’s role in this project? Or is it Portugal that should take better advantage of the opportunity?
– The Central Government manages international relations, even in matters related to Macau. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MNE) created the MNE Commissioner’s Office here, safeguarding sovereignty and national interest. This office pools resources and conducts diplomatic activity in the Macao SAR; and promoting the long-term stability and prosperity of the Macao SAR. Macau is fully recognized as a link between China and the Portuguese-speaking world, which is why Forum Macau was created as a multilateral intergovernmental – not political – platform focused on economic and trade promotion.
In 2023, Macao SAR celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Basic Law; and the 20th anniversary of Forum Macau, which opens up new diplomatic opportunities. Portugal is an important connection center for the Silk Road – land and sea – it actively participates in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative; and is an active member of Forum Macau. Portugal and Macau still have a lot of space and great potential for cooperation.

Can this visit open a new cycle in relations between China and Portugal?
– China and Portugal are strategic partners, with comprehensive cooperation. Portugal was the first country in Western Europe to sign the “One Belt, One Route” initiative; the first in the European Union to establish a formal partnership with China for sustainable growth and the Blue Economy; the first in the Euro Zone to issue bonds in renminbi… The cooperation is fruitful, in several domains such as the economy, commerce, science and technology, culture, education… with mutual support in matters that concern both. Macau is an important part of this relationship; and the main objective of the EC visit to Portugal is to expand economic, commercial and cultural exchanges, so that Portugal pays more attention to Macao. This visit will bring positive signs for a new cycle of relations between China and Portugal.

With what concrete consequences?
– For Macau, this visit accelerates the Sino-Portuguese platform; strengthens cooperation with Portugal; and can attract Portuguese investors and tourists. The Macao SAR will work with Portugal to preserve and develop the Portuguese language and culture; and the confidence of the Portuguese community in Macau will be strengthened. In the case of China, this visit allows the Central Government to see the determination and execution capacity of the Macao SAR Government, after Covid-19, to expand international cooperation and strengthen partnerships with Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking countries. Finally, this visit will make Portugal pay more attention to the development and opening up of Macao. Portuguese companies must realize that the best way to enter the Greater Bay Area – and the mainland – is through the Macau platform.

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