BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Commission announced on Thursday that it was ready to open negotiations with China, one of the European Union's most important trading partners, on an investment protection accord.
As a first step, it will ask the 27 EU member states to approve a negotiating mandate with China, which counts the EU as its single-largest export market.
The announcement comes amid a series of tit-for-tat trade disputes between Brussels and Beijing and as the EU begins talks with Washington on what could be the largest-ever free trade agreement (FTA).
China eyes that development - and similar United States initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region - with some concern, and has asked the EU to open talks on their own FTA, a prospect Brussels has played down, believing an investment accord would be a more suitable first step.
"An EU-China investment agreement will help deepen our ties and sends the signal that we are firmly committed to building a strong partnership," EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said in a statement.
"The agreement needs to secure existing openness and deliver new liberalisation of the conditions for accessing each other's investment market," Mr De Gucht said in a statement.
"Crucially, it should also improve the treatment of investors and their assets - including key technologies and intellectual property rights," he added. "I look forward to working with the new Chinese government to reach a deal."
The Commission said that an accord would bring together current separate agreements into one text, with the aim of improving "the protection of EU investments in China as well as Chinese investments in Europe, improving legal certainty regarding treatment of EU investors in China, reducing barriers to investing in China and, as a result, increasing bilateral investment flows".
"It should also, crucially, cover improved access to the Chinese market," it added, citing a key and long-standing EU concern over trade with China.