BRUSSELS: Chinese leader Xi Jinping began a three-day visit to Belgium on Sunday on the last leg of his European tour that will include meeting the Belgian royals and seeing giant pandas ahead of a historic European Union (EU) visit, the first ever by a Chinese president.
Xi was welcomed at the airport by Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and he is set to go to the royal palace in central Brussels to meet Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde.
The tiny country is presenting a showcase royal touch for Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan, with the power couple rolling up to the Brussels palace escorted by officers on horseback, and dining in the castle’s halls on the city outskirts on Monday.
King Philippe, who ascended to the throne last year, and glamorous wife Queen Mathilde will join the Chinese pair for the official opening on Sunday of a special park for two giant pandas on loan from China for the next 15 years.
Xi’s maiden swing through Europe as president has taken him to the Netherlands, France and Germany for bilateral talks and mega business deals, as well as to last week’s Nuclear Security Summit where he met US President Barack Obama.
In a tour of many firsts, his three days in Belgium will see a Chinese president visit EU headquarters for the first time, when he meets on Monday with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament president Martin Schulz.
Business has loomed large through the tour, and with the European bloc as China’s largest trading partner — two-way trade is at more than a billion euros a day — economic issues are likely to dominate too at the EU, though human rights and diplomacy, in particular Ukraine, will also come up.
Pandas divide Belgium
The Chinese leader’s trip to the park to see female Hao Hao and companion Xing Hui, who arrived in Belgium in February, is an acknowledgement of China’s “panda diplomacy.”
But the two furry national treasures 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, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Brussels, not far from the city of Mons whose last mayor is none other than Di Rupo.
The Pairi Daiza zoo has since seen its ticket sales boom and share price soar, angering Belgium’s oldest and most well-known zoo, located in the heart of the port city of Antwerp in northern Flanders.
In other bilateral encounters with Belgium’s leaders, Xi will hold talks with Di Rupo and parliament leaders on Monday, and on Tuesday visit the largest Chinese-owned company in Belgium, carmaker Volvo in Ghent, bought by Geely from Ford in 2010.
Belgium will be hoping for new investments.
Though it has sought to sell itself to Beijing investors as “a gateway to Europe,” there has been little interest up until now though trade has grown and the balance improved in Belgium’s favor from a 65-percent hike in exports in the last five years.
On the wider European front, talks between Xi and the EU’s top officials on Monday are likely to take place in an easier atmosphere than expected after both sides took steps in recent days to settle trade tiffs.
The 28-member EU is China’s biggest trading partner, but relations have seen periodic turmoil over trade and human rights. Trade totaled $559 billion in 2013, according to China.