April 1, 2014 5:33 am JST

China moves briskly toward closer relationship with Europe

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA and MASAKUNI OSHIRABE, Nikkei staff writers

BRUSSELS/THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- China's President Xi Jinping paid an unprecedented visit to the European Union's headquarters here Monday, as Beijing and the EU work toward deeper trade and strategic ties.

     Xi met with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and other officials as part of his roughly 10-day European tour, which has also included meetings with leaders from the U.K., Germany and France.

     According to Chinese media reports, Xi said in the meetings he would like China and the EU to become "true friends" that can trust one another in a multipolar world. The remark expresses Beijing's aim of challenging U.S. dominance and building an international order with the participation of China, the EU and others.

     China and the EU released a joint statement Monday on deepening their "comprehensive strategic partnership for mutual benefit."

     Both sides brought up the possibility of a China-EU free trade agreement during the talks. The EU, however, is firm in viewing the issue as something to be discussed over the medium term.

     While Beijing and Brussels do not see eye to eye on the dispute in Ukraine, they agreed to seek peaceful solutions through diplomatic means to keep the crisis from getting worse.

     Ukraine was indeed on Xi's mind when he spoke of cooperation with Germany, which holds the key to consensus building in the EU. China has maintained a neutral stance on the conflict, but is apparently aiming to keep channels of communication open with Europe -- and with Germany in particular -- harboring hopes of acting as an intermediary between Russia and the U.S. and Europe.

     These attempts to tighten political ties with Berlin suggest a change in posture for Beijing, which has in the past stressed its relationship with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, namely the U.S., the U.K., France and Russia.

     China had long eschewed asserting itself abroad, instead focusing on economic growth at home. But under Xi, it has cast off this low-profile strategy and is seeking to shift toward a greater emphasis on wielding influence on the international stage.

     Xi has called for a "new type of great-power relationship" with the U.S., and China's attempts to strengthen multilayered ties with Europe are being made with an eye to countering America's influence.

     The EU and China recently defused tensions over a number of trade issues. In March, China dropped an anti-dumping probe on wine imported from Europe, while the EU halted an anti-dumping investigation into Chinese-made telecommunications equipment.

     Xi will pay a visit to the northwestern Belgian city of Bruges on Tuesday before returning to China.