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China's Xi receives royal welcome in Belgium before EU talks

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China's Xi receives royal welcome in Belgium before EU talks

Xi Jinping - Photo Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

(BRUSSELS) - Xi Jinping received a royal welcome and an honorary knighthood in Brussels on Sunday at the start of a three-day visit despite China's "panda diplomacy" causing a row among his Belgian hosts.

King Philippe and Queen Mathilde joined Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan for the official opening of a special habitat for two giant pandas, on loan from China for the next 15 years, at the southern Pairi Daiza zoo and botanical garden, which has been actively involved in the preservation of endangered species.

The female, Hao Hao, visibly enjoyed the interest of the royal and foreign visitors munching on a branch. Hao Hao and her partner Xing Hui have been in Belgium since February.

Dozens of royal horsemen earlier escorted Xi and his wife as they rolled up to the Brussels palace to be greeted by the royal couple as more than 300 people including many Chinese waving national flags looked on.

In the palace's Empire Room, the king bestowed the Order of Leopold on Xi, who is on the last leg of his maiden swing through Europe as president.

Xi's trip earlier took 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.

Xi will become the first Chinese leader to visit EU headquarters and on Monday is set to meet for five hours of talks with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

No press conference was scheduled after Xi turned down a request by his hosts but he will make a public address at the College of Europe, the world's first university institute of postgraduate studies and training in European affairs in Bruges, on Tuesday.

Business has loomed large throughout 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 European Union, though human rights and diplomacy, in particular Ukraine, will also come up.

- Pandas divide Belgium -

The Chinese leader's trip to Pairi Daiza, which means enclosed garden in ancient Persian, to see the two pandas is widely seen as 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 kilometres (40 miles) from Brussels, not far from the city of Mons whose last mayor was none other than Belgian Prime Minister Elio 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 Tuesday visit 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 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 favour due to 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 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 totalled $559 billion in 2013, according to China.

Days ahead of Xi's landmark EU visit, the European Commission announced it was dropping plans to open anti-dumping and anti-subsidy inquiries into Chinese telecom firms, which though not named would have targeted Huawei and ZTE.

And the European move followed Beijing's own announcement on the eve of the president's departure to Europe that it was ending an anti-dumping inquiry into EU wine imports, the second trade dispute settled in less than a week after China said it had reached an agreement on exports of polysilicon from Europe.

Both the polysilicon and wine disputes were widely seen as resulting from a fierce 2013 battle over the dumping of Chinese solar panels on the European market.

Polysilicon is an important element in some types of solar panels, while China's announcement that it was probing if European wine was being sold below cost and enjoyed unfair subsidies came a day after the Commission said it would slap tariffs on Chinese producers of solar panels.

EU relations with China

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