Xi Jinping’s charm offensive helps bolster diplomatic, economic ties with Europe
More personal approach by Xi bolsters China's standing on continent, even as disagreements over human rights and trade policy persist
President Xi Jinping's European charm offensive has strengthened Beijing's economic and diplomatic clout with the EU, although trade disputes and human rights remain a potential source of tension going forward.
Easing up on the tough rhetoric and stressing co-operation, Xi's strategy marked a shift in how China engages its biggest trading partner, after the two sides seemed on the verge of a trade war over a multibillion-euro dispute over Chinese solar panel imports.
Xi instead focused most of his remarks on how the two sides could work together during his 10-day tour in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium.
Watch: China's Xi visits Beijing's pandas on last leg of Europe tour
In Germany, Xi said China's market and German technology, when combined, could promote mutual social development. Xi said Sino-German co-operation would have positive momentum as long as they had a "full tank" and the right steering.
"The obvious message of Xi is that Europe matters to China," said Thomas König, China programme co-ordinator of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "China cannot afford to be left behind and this is the more subtle reason for this European charm offensive."
He said China was concerned about the EU's major trade pact negotiations and the upcoming European Parliament election.
"Beijing might be making many diplomatic mistakes in Asia," said Jonathan Holslag, head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, referring to Beijing's response to territorial disputes with its neighbours.
"But in Europe it plays the different capitals masterfully by creating the impression that each country has something special and privileged with China."
A series of trade and economic deals were signed during the trip, and the solar panels dispute was amicably resolved. In France alone, the deals were worth €18 billion (HK$192 billion). The EU said it would consider a free-trade deal with China even though some EU states, such as Italy, are sceptical.
Watch: Xi visits car factory in Belgium, wraps up the Europe tour
Xi also referred to China as an awakened - but peaceful - lion, a departure from the more innocuous language of previous leaders.
"Xi is more willing to show his personable side when engaging foreign audiences," said Zhao Junjie , from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Zhao said China had more flexibility in contemplating European strategy, as its disputes with the EU do not touch a core interest - asserting its sovereignty and its standing in the Asia-Pacific.
EU officials said the visit could mark a new chapter in diplomatic ties.
China's EU ambassador Yang Yanyi , who arrived in Brussels in January, was more measured, saying: "I have no illusions that our partnership will be irritant-free … but we can work them out."