Belgium's King Philippe (R) shows China's President Xi Jinping a gift during an official welcoming ceremony in Brussels March 30, 2014. Xi will use two pandas to break the ice and soften European opposition to a free-trade deal with China during a visit to Belgium which starts on Sunday. As the first Chinese leader to visit the European Union'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.

Brussels - Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived Sunday in Belgium for a three-day stay that will feature the first-ever visit by a Chinese head of state to the European Union's institutions.

Xi, who took office in 2012, is on a four-country European trip that has already featured stops in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

On Sunday, he is scheduled to visit two Chinese giant pandas that have been lent to Belgium.

Hao Hao and Xing Hui, the two giant pandas, arrived in the country last month.

The president and his wife, Peng Liyuan, will inaugurate their new home and plant a wish tree while at the Pairi Daiza animal park in western Belgium.

They will be accompanied by Belgian King Philippe and his wife, Queen Mathilde, as well as Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.

The presidential couple will have started the day in the capital Brussels, with an official welcoming ceremony at the royal palace and a tribute ceremony at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

The visit to the EU institutions will follow on Monday, with talks due to take place with EU President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

China is considered a strategic partner by the EU, but relations have not always been harmonious.

Disagreements have affected issues such as trade and the conflict in Syria.

China and the EU are currently negotiating an investment agreement, which European politicians and businesses hope will improve access to the Asian giant's economy.

Press conferences are usually a staple of such state visits, but top Chinese officials have usually refused the practice.

This time will be no different, European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde said.

Xi will, however, hold a speech on EU-China relations on Tuesday, during a visit to the College of Europe university in the northern city of Bruges.

The day will also feature a stop at a Volvo factory that produces cars for the Chinese market.

Economic opportunities have dominated Xi's trip to Europe, with business deals signed both in France and Germany.

But the leader had also been expected to use his visits to drum up support for China in its disputes with Japan.

The two countries are at odds over islands in the East China

Sea, as well as air defence zones there.

Xi's time in Belgium is expected to feature protests.

Non-governmental organisations have expressed concerns about human rights in China ahead of his visit, urging the EU to act. - Sapa-dpa