BRUSSELS - Chinese leader Xi Jinping began a ground-breaking European Union visit Monday, arriving for talks with the bloc's top officials in the first visit to EU headquarters by a Chinese president.
After a red-carpet day with Belgium's royals and a visit to a zoo to open a habitat for a pair of giant pandas on loan from Beijing, Xi got down to serious business in talks expected to touch on the crisis in Ukraine, human rights and quarrels over trade.
The Chinese leader, on the last leg of his first official tour of Europe, meets successively with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament chief Martin Schulz.
The EU too rolled out its red carpet for Xi to meet Van Rompuy as the Chinese leader stepped into EU offices amid very little security fuss and a few flag-wavers - a sharp contrast to the traffic turmoil caused by US President Barack Obama a few days ago.
With no press conference scheduled, after Xi turned down a request by his hosts, few details are expected to emerge. But 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.
China's human rights record, a constant concern in the 28-nation bloc, is expected to be raised as protesters mass outside the EU institutions to demand freedom for jailed activists and more rights for Tibetans and other minorities.
"The EU needs to unite not just on pan-European trade deals but also on a principled and publicly articulated human rights message," said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. "The EU's senior officials keep ducking this obligation with China."
Xi will hold bilateral talks with Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and parliament leaders later Monday. Tuesday he visits 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 nothing on the scale of the mega deals signed with Germany and France earlier on Xi's tour.
While Belgium has sought to sell itself to Beijing investors as "a gateway to Europe", there has been little interest until now - although trade has grown and the balance improved in Belgium's favour due to a 65-per cent hike in exports in the last five years.
'Panda diplomacy' row
Tiny Belgium laid on a royal welcome for Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan despite China's "panda diplomacy" causing a row in the country.
Dozens of royal horsemen escorted the Chinese power couple as they rolled up to the Brussels palace Sunday to meet King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, who will host them for a state dinner at the leafy Laeken castle on the outskirts of Brussels on Monday.
But the furry pandas, national treasures in China, 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 from Brussels and 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 best-known zoo, located in the heart of the port city of Antwerp in northern Flanders.
Playing up the language row triggered by the bears, Flanders' most popular politician, separatist Bart De Wever, made a buzz a few weeks back by appearing on a prime-time TV show disguised as a panda.