China's President Xi Jinping, left, and Belgium's King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, right, present the 300 000th Volvo car produced for the Chinese market during a visit to a car plant in Ghent, northern Belgium. Xi's visit to EU institutions this week is the first by a Chinese leader. Photo: Reuters

Brussels - At the height of the euro zone crisis, a Chinese official quipped that Europe was being reduced to a “wonderful theme park” for tourists. That view no longer holds as Beijing recalibrates links with the biggest trade bloc.

Beijing’s growing realisation that China needs strong influence in Europe’s de facto capital, Brussels, has been cemented by President Xi Jinping’s visit to the EU’s institutions this week, the first by a Chinese leader.

Xi did not come offering business deals and little of substance came out of a summit on Monday. But a change in tone from confrontation to co-operation could mark a new chapter in Sino-European ties, EU officials say.

Nurtured over the past decade as China and its businesses sought to protect and promote their interests in Europe, Beijing’s diplomatic charm offensive is being consolidated by Xi, who became president a year ago with an ambitious reform agenda.

Gone are the days when China maintained a low-key embassy focused mainly on Belgium and the Chinese ambassador would decline invitations to attend lunches, let alone speak to them.

With her designer French handbags, China’s ambassador to the EU, Yang Yanyi, has been a regular at cocktail parties and talks on EU-China relations since arriving in January.

The 90-strong diplomatic mission to the EU has in recent months opened its doors for families to try calligraphy and ping-pong. Diplomats have thrown a Chinese New Year’s party with dragon dancers for the Brussels diplomatic elite and were instrumental in organising the loan of two giant pandas to a Belgian zoo.

Ambassador Yang recently charmed her way into the European Parliament’s President Salon, a rooftop hall reserved for visiting dignitaries, to promote Chinese telecoms firm Huawei. That was despite EU suspicions that Huawei owes its success to subsidies that Europe says are illegal.

“I have no illusions that our partnership will be irritant free,” Yang said. “Disagreements and disputes are normal, but we can work them out.”

Such language was unheard of a year ago, when Beijing and Brussels appeared to be on the verge of a trade war because of a multibillion-euro dispute over Chinese solar panel imports.

While that case, in which Brussels accused Beijing of trying to corner the market with cheap Chinese goods, was resolved amicably, it reminded China that Brussels has the power to affect its interests.

“When it comes to international regulation and decision-making, there are three cities in the world that count: Washington, Beijing and Brussels,” said a former senior US official who has worked in all three capitals.

While Chinese officials had doubts during the euro zone’s near-meltdown, Beijing has taken that message on board.

From tracking rulings by the European Court of Justice to decisions on EU trade policy, Chinese officials and companies are watching closely, learning the EU’s acronyms, jargon and working practices.

China wants to be considered a “market economy” to receive better treatment in trade disputes. Whereas Chinese companies once relied on the Ministry of Commerce to represent their interests, major corporations such as Huawei now have their own public relations teams.

“There are differences and frictions,” said Duncan Freeman, a political analyst at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. “But these are becoming more normal, which is the way it should be.” – Reuters