From front right, Belgium's King Philippe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan view the giant panda Hao Hao at Paira Daiza Park in Brugelette, Belgium yesterday. China has loaned two giant pandas to the zoo for 15 years. Photo: AP

Brussels - Chinese President Xi Jinping used two pandas to break the ice and soften European opposition to a free-trade deal with China during a visit to Belgium, which started yesterday.

As the first Chinese leader to visit the EU’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 China’s ambassador to the EU, Yang Yanyi. “We need to explore ways to deepen our partnership.”

Xi said 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. Chinese officials hope the “panda diplomacy” will strike a different tone from a year ago when the EU and China 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 EU to consider a multibillion-euro 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 but the bilateral relationship has been bedevilled by damaging trade rows ranging from steel and wine to solar panels.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told officials in China in December last year that he was a strong advocate of a free-trade deal.

But Europe is wary. EU diplomats say most of its 28 nations have resisted Chinese pressure to include a reference to a free-trade pact in a joint statement due to be released after today’s EU-China summit in Brussels.

Trade between Europe and China has doubled since 2003 to more than e1 billion (R14.5bn) a day, but Europeans accuse Chinese state-owned companies of receiving unfair subsidies that allow them to undercut foreign competitors.

The European Commission, which handles international trade negotiations for EU countries, said there must be progress on an “investment agreement” under negotiation to make it easier for Europeans to do business in China.

Trade tensions have lessened since last year, when the commission threatened to impose duties on e21bn of Chinese solar panels imports and Beijing retaliated with its own measures. In the past two weeks, China ended its own subsidy and dumping complaints against imports of European wine and polysilicon, which is used in solar panels.

EU trade chief Karel De Gucht said last week that he would no longer pursue an investigation into Chinese dumping of telecoms equipment, worth e1bn a year. But he still had concerns that firms Huawei and ZTE were receiving illegal subsidies.

Xi’s appetite for political and economic reform, coupled with his folksy style, have raised hopes that Brussels has a man it can do business with.

China unveiled its boldest reforms in nearly three decades in November last year, months after Xi became president. For Europe, the hope is better treatment of its companies in China and more access to the second-largest economy.

The EU’s top two officials, Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, will seek to hear more on that from Xi at the EU-China summit.

China is a key player in the Ukraine crisis. While Beijing has been cautious not to be drawn into the struggle between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s future, the EU will want to hear Xi’s views. – Reuters