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Support for free trade takes on new significance

Amid mounting fears over the specter of escalating trade tensions haunting the global economy, China's role as a visionary leader of open and free trade is taking on a new significance, an expert said.

The world's second largest economy celebrates the 40th anniversary of the launch of reform and opening-up this year, a milestone that set the stage for an unbridled socioeconomic miracle whose sheer scale and pace in little more than a generation is unprecedented in human history.

"Since 1978, the country's journey from self-imposed isolation to a modern market economy has proved to be a driving force for global trade," said Christian Ewert, director general of Amfori, which is based in Belgium and was previously known as the Foreign Trade Association-the global business association for open and sustainable trade.

The nation's unwavering commitment to opening more of its economy to foreign investors and expanding market access was underlined by top economic officials, including He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and NDRC deputy director Ning Jizhe, last week at the annual session of the National People's Congress.

In his Government Work Report, Premier Li Keqiang pledged that China will open the door to trade and investment flows, and is willing to integrate further into the world economy.

As the United States' decision to impose heavy tariffs on steel and aluminum sent a fresh shudder through global markets, and the European Union waits to see where the United Kingdom's withdrawal will lead the bloc, China's unswerving support for open and free trade makes a big difference, Ewert said.

"When you look at the analysis of the World Trade Organization, the number of protectionist measures carried out by G20 economies, which are supposed to be a stalwart of free and open trade, rose to 1,300 in 2016 from 900 in 2013," he said. "This indicates a global trend, where rhetoric and mentality the world over may usher in a new era of protectionism.

"As the course of globalization is poised to undergo a new wave of twists and turns, Chinese policymakers need to be applauded for their visionary and strategic approach to reviving trade with the Belt and Road Initiative," Ewert said.

"The Silk Road today is more than it used to be-the overland and maritime routes spanning the entire Eurasian landmass from east to west. It is now a global spider's web covering a vast population of 4.4 billion people and an economic output of $21 trillion in more than 70 economies."

Ewert said all he can foresee right now is the continuation and further improvement as well as deepening of the existing relationships between China and the EU.

A spiral of protectionist trade measures looming ahead essentially calls for the two trading blocs, both of which are clear proponents of free and open trade, to foster their bilateral relations and trade ties in a more proactive manner, he added.