Xi visit sets 'landmark' in EU-China ties

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Chinese leader Xi Jinping, on the last leg of a maiden tour of Europe, on Monday made a ground-breaking visit to European Union headquarters underlining China's bid to firm up bilateral ties.

"This first visit by a Chinese president to the EU was a historic landmark in EU-China relations," a joint EU-China statement said. "Both sides... welcomed the significant strengthening of bilateral ties over the last 40 years."

After arriving Sunday to a red-carpet welcome from Belgium's royals, and visiting a pair of pandas on loan from Beijing, Xi got down to serious business in talks that touched on the crisis in Ukraine, human rights and quarrels over trade.

In the run-up to the historic visit, both sides expressed the need for deeper bonds between peoples that make up a quarter of the world's population and represent a third of the world economy.

"Rocks cannot interrupt the course of a river in its tumultuous voyage to the ocean, I am convinced that no problem or difference can snarl the march of Sino-European friendship and cooperation," Xi wrote in Belgium's daily Le Soir.

The visit "shows that China's foreign policy remains mindful of Europe and interested in pursuing greater integration with the Europeans," said Patrick Nijs, former Belgian ambassador to China.

The Chinese leader, who winds up his 11-day tour of Europe on Tuesday, met with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament chief Martin Schulz.

And after touring a show on Belgium-born Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, Xi's wife Peng Liyuan joined the official lunch.

Xi stepped into EU offices amid little security fuss and a few flag-wavers - a sharp contrast to the massive security and traffic turmoil caused in a visit by US President Barack Obama last week.

China's rights record, a constant concern in the 28-nation bloc, was raised during the talks and scores of protesters assembled outside the EU institutions to demand freedom for jailed activists and more rights for Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities.

"The EU needs to unite not just on pan-European trade deals but also on a principled and publicly articulated human rights message," said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch.

Flag-waving pro-China activists meanwhile scrambled to cover up street posters advertising concerts organised by the Falungong group, opponents of Beijing.

The 20-point EU-China statement referred to civil rights, saying both sides would "deepen exchanges on human rights ... on the basis of equality and mutual respect." It also welcomed a joint counter-piracy naval exercise in the Gulf of Aden on March 20 and agreed to reinforce foreign policy and security cooperation.

But with the European bloc as China's biggest trading partner - two-way trade is at more than a billion euros a day - economic issues dominated, according to EU diplomats.

EU officials thanked China for standing by the euro during the eurozone crisis and agreed to work towards a free trade deal (FTA) with China in the medium-term, while saying the immediate goal was to strike an Investment Agreement, diplomats said.

An investment deal would signal "willingness to envisage broader ambitions including, once the conditions are right, towards a deep and comprehensive FTA, as a longer term perspective," the joint statement said.

"China is desperate to have an advanced free trade agreement in place: the ones it has or is negotiating at the moment with Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia are not very diversified," said Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, the director of the European Centre for International Policy Economy.

"The Chinese feel cornered," he added. "The US is closed to them, the rest of Asia is too small to attract the investment China needs to reform its economy." Relations with the 28-member EU have seen periodic turmoil over trade.

Monday's talks however took place in an easier climate after the European Commission announced days ahead of Xi's visit that it was dropping plans to open anti-dumping and anti-subsidy inquiries into Chinese telecom firms, which though not named would have targeted Huawei and ZTE.

The move followed Beijing's own decision on the eve of the visit to end an inquiry into EU wine imports and after reaching an agreement on exports of polysilicon, a solar panel component, from Europe.

Both those disputes were widely seen as tit-for-tat retribution in the fierce 2013 battle over the alleged dumping of Chinese solar panels on the European market.

Later on Monday, Xi will hold bilateral talks with Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and parliament leaders.

Tuesday he visits the largest Chinese-owned company in Belgium, carmaker Volvo, in Ghent, bought by the Hangzhou-based Geely from Ford in 2010.

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