Updated: 03/31/2014 22:27 | By Agence France-Presse

China's Xi seeks 'win-win' in ground-breaking EU visit

China's Xi Jinping made a groundbreaking first visit by a Chinese president to European Union headquarters Monday, saying closer ties between the two partners -- which represent a quarter of the world's people -- were "a win-win".

China's Xi seeks 'win-win' in ground-breaking EU visit

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on March 31, 2014 - by Georges Gobet

After a red-carpet day with Belgium's royals and a visit to a zoo hosting a pair of pandas on loan from Beijing, Xi got down to serious business in talks that touched on the crisis in Ukraine, human rights and quarrels over trade.

"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 Belgium's daily Le Soir.

In the commentary, Xi voiced hopes his visit would benefit both the EU and China on several fronts, bringing together partners that together account for a third of the world's economy and play a major role in global humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts.

"Xi's trip shows that China's foreign policy remains mindful of Europe and interested in pursuing greater integration with the Europeans," said Patrick Nijs, former Belgian ambassador to China.

The Chinese leader, on the last leg of his first official tour of Europe, met with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament chief Martin Schulz.

The EU rolled out its red carpet for Xi as the Chinese leader stepped into EU offices amid little security fuss and a few flag-wavers -- a sharp contrast to the traffic turmoil caused by US President Barack Obama last week.

With no press conference scheduled, after Xi turned down a request by his hosts to hold one, few details are expected to emerge.

An EU diplomat told AFP that with the European bloc as China's biggest trading partner -- two-way trade is at more than a billion euros a day -- economic issues were dominant in the talks, along with human rights and foreign policy, including Ukraine.

- EU raises rights -

China's rights record, a constant concern in the 28-nation bloc, was raised as scores of protesters assembled outside the EU institutions to demand freedom for jailed activists and more rights for Tibetans and other minorities.

"The EU needs to unite not just on pan-European trade deals but also on a principled and publicly articulated human rights message," said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. "The EU's senior officials keep ducking this obligation with China."

Pro-China activists meanwhile hid posters advertising huge concerts this week organised by the Buddhist Falungong group, opponents of Beijing.

Xi will hold bilateral talks with Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and parliament leaders later Monday. Tuesday he visits the largest Chinese-owned company in Belgium, carmaker Volvo, in Ghent, bought by the Hangzhou-based Geely from Ford in 2010.

Belgium will be hoping for new investments, though nothing on the scale of the mega deals signed with Germany and France earlier on Xi's tour.

While Belgium has sought to sell itself as "a gateway to Europe", there has been little interest from Beijing until now.

Tiny Belgium laid on a royal welcome for Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan despite China's "panda diplomacy" causing a row in the country.

Dozens of royal horsemen escorted the Chinese power couple as they rolled up to the Brussels palace Sunday to meet King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, who will host them for a state dinner later on Monday.

But the furry pandas, national treasures in China, have unwittingly opened a new rift in the longtime turmoil dividing Belgium's rival Dutch- and French-speaking communities.

The problem is that the rare bears, a reliable draw for visitors, are in a zoo in French-speaking southern Wallonia, about 60 kilometres from Brussels and not far from the city of Mons, where Di Rupo is a former mayor.

The Pairi Daiza zoo has since seen its ticket sales boom and share price soar, angering Belgium's oldest and best-known zoo, located in the heart of the port city of Antwerp in northern Flanders.

Playing up the language row triggered by the bears, Flanders' most popular politician, separatist Bart De Wever, made a buzz a few weeks back by appearing on a prime-time TV show disguised as a panda.

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