Xi brings panda diplomacy to Brussels
President begins historic visit to EU headquarters, hoping ursine envoys can soften trade talks
President Xi Jinping will use two pandas to break the ice and soften European opposition to a free-trade deal with China during his visit to Belgium which began yesterday.
As the first Chinese leader to visit the European Union's headquarters since Brussels established ties with Beijing four decades ago, Xi will also seek to send a message that China is a less confrontational partner, ready to resolve trade disputes.
"Our common interests far outweigh our differences," said Yang Yanyi, China's ambassador to the EU. "We need to explore ways to deepen our partnership."
Dozens of royal horsemen escorted Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan as they arrived at the Brussels palace to be greeted by King Philippe and Queen Mathilde as more than 300 people, including many flag-waving Chinese, looked on.
In the palace's Empire Room, the king bestowed the Order of Leopold on Xi, who is on the last leg of his maiden swing through Europe as president.
Xi will say hello to China's two ursine envoys Xing Hui and Hao Hao, loaned to Belgium last month, at a wildlife park near Brussels, part of a Chinese tradition of using pandas to foster better relations around the world.
Officials hope the "panda diplomacy" will strike a different tone from a year ago when China and the EU narrowly avoided a trade war and help Xi tackle difficult issues ranging from human rights to the West's tug of war over Ukraine.
At the top of Xi's list is pushing the European Union to consider a multi-billion-dollar free-trade deal, a step that would dramatically deepen ties between two of the world's largest markets.
Europe is China's most important trading partner.
For the EU, China is second only to the United States, but the relationship has been bedeviled by a series of damaging trade rows ranging from steel and wine to solar panels.
"We should look at the broader picture. It will eventually benefit not only China but Europe," Yang said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told officials in China in December he was a strong advocate of such a free-trade deal.
But most of Europe is wary. EU diplomats say most of the EU's 28 nations have resisted pressure from Beijing to include a reference to a free-trade pact in the joint statement due to be released after the Sino-European summit in Brussels today.
Daily trade between China and Europe has doubled since 2003 to more than €1 billion (HK$10.6 billion).
But Europeans say Chinese state-owned enterprises receive unfair subsidies that allow them to undercut foreign competitors. The European Commission has said there must first be progress on an "investment agreement" to make it easier for Europeans to do business in China.
Still, trade tensions have lessened since last year when the commission threatened to impose duties on €21 billion of Chinese solar panels imports and Beijing retaliated with its own measures. In the past two weeks, China has ended its own complaints against imports of European wine and polysilicon used in solar panels.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
First lady Peng Liyuan has her own take on her husband's "Chinese dream" slogan. "My Chinese dream is that all children in the world, especially girls, can get a good education like you," Peng told a group of pupils during a visit to a middle school in Essen, Germany. President Xi Jinping, who has brought Peng along on his tour of Europe, has used the "Chinese dream" to describe the desire for the renaissance and rejuvenation of China. Unesco named Peng a special envoy to promote education for girls and women last week, when she and her husband visited the organisation's Paris headquarters. During Peng's appearance at the German school yesterday, three students asked her how to master the Chinese language. "You need to learn it from a teacher and watch more Chinese movies and TV dramas," she said. The pupils put on Chinese-language performances for Peng.