EU foreign policy chief Ashton holds talks in China

BEIJING (AFP) - European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton held talks on Saturday with officials in China in the first visit by a top-ranking EU official to the country under its new leadership.

"You are the very first head of an EU institution to visit China after the inauguration of the new government in China," Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said at the start of a meeting with Ms Ashton at the foreign ministry.

Mr Wang said the visit's timing was symbolic of the importance "placed by both the EU and you yourself on the Chinese-EU relationship".

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Ashton said she had wanted to visit as early as possible to "discuss deepening our collaboration".

Before departing Brussels, Ms Ashton, who is also a vice-president of the European Commission, had said in a statement that given China's recent change in leadership, it was time "to renew ties".

China's once-a-decade leadership transition saw Mr Wang became foreign minister last month, while his predecessor Yang Jiechi moved up to the State Council - China's Cabinet - as the country's top foreign policy official.

Ms Ashton was set to meet Mr Yang later on Saturday. Earlier, she met new Defence Minister Chang Wanquan.

Her talks in Beijing were expected to focus on global issues including Iran, Syria, North Korea and Afghanistan.

The EU and China are major trading partners but ties have been strained at times by disputes over market access.

China has consistently backed greater European integration but has resented criticism by Brussels of its human rights record, which Beijing sees as interference in its internal affairs.

From China, Ms Ashton will travel to resource-rich Mongolia for meetings with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and Prime Minister Noroviin Altankhuyag and sign a Partnership and Cooperation agreement with the country, according to the EU.

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