Unthinkable just a year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping won a promise from the European Union on Monday to consider a multi-billion-dollar free-trade deal.
Xi, the first Chinese leader to visit European Union headquarters in Brussels since ties were established in 1975, pressed senior EU officials to consider such a pact, despite European concerns that Chinese state-owned firms flout international trade rules, Reuters reported.
The EU promise hinges on first coming to terms on an investment agreement, talks for which began in January. Xi’s visit was intended to speed up the process.
“Concluding such a comprehensive EU-China Investment Agreement … will convey both sides’ joint commitment towards stronger cooperation as well as their willingness to envisage broader ambitions including, once the conditions are right, towards a deep and comprehensive FTA, as a longer-term perspective,” the two sides said in their summit statement, according to Reuters.
Xi is on the last leg of a European tour accompanied by more than 200 Chinese business leaders, several of whom signed multi-billion agreements to buy airplanes and cars as the contingent swept through France and Germany on their way to Belgium.
Signed agreements included those with automakers Daimler and BMW in Germany, and 10-year deal with Airbus in France to assemble A320 planes in China as well as the unblocking of orders on larger jets worth more than US$6 billion.
China’s ultimate goal for the trip was to reach a wide-ranging trade agreement with the EU, a US$17 trillion economy. In turn, the EU hoped to persuade China to open its markets to foreigners and attract more direct investment, CNN said.
According to one EU official at Monday’s summit, Xi pushed hard for the EU to consider the free-trade pact. “China wanted to go further on an FTA,” the official said after Xi’s meeting with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
“Europe agrees to go ahead with this target in the medium term. We prefer to go ahead first with an investment agreement.”
Many see negotiations moving along quickly, with a signed agreement making it easier for European countries to do business in China.
As do their counterparts in the US, European companies complain of poor treatment in China, such as being forced to share sensitive know-how to win access to Chinese funding and local contracts, said Reuters. Mandatory joint ventures and limits on foreign ownership are also barriers that the EU hopes to remove.
“The China-EU strategic cooperation has a bright future and both sides should not only cooperate at the bilateral level, but also work together within the framework of the Asia-Europe relationship, and join efforts in dealing with global challenges,” said Xi, according to a Global Times news report.
Disputes notwithstanding, Europe is China’s most important trading partner, while for the EU, China is second only to the United States. Bilateral trade in goods reached more than US$588.6 billion last year—US$1.6 billion every day, according to the latest data from the European Commission.
Par for the course, Xi did not miss an opportunity to wax eloquent.
“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 Belgian daily Le Soir.
Xi also charmed Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde by visiting Hao Hao and Xing Hui, two giant pandas dispatched to Belgium in February and on loan to the country of 11 million people for the next 15 years.
If that weren’t enough to fan the flames on EU-China negotiations, China also announced plans to invest US$100 billion per year into Eastern European countries by 2015.
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