* Free-trade deal with EU is Chinese priority
* EU, China seek to put aside trade tensions
* Xi is first Chinese leader to visit EU headquarters
By Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS, March 31 Chinese President Xi Jinping
won a promise from the European Union on Monday to consider a
multi-billion-dollar free-trade deal with his country, a
long-held goal for Beijing which divides Europe.
Xi, the first Chinese leader to visit the EU institutions in
Brussels since ties were established in 1975, pressed senior EU
officials to consider such a pact, despite European concerns
that Chinese state-owned firms flout international trade rules.
The 28-nation EU committed for the first time to opening
talks on a free-trade accord (FTA) if current negotiations on an
"investment agreement" to improve business ties are successful.
"Concluding such a comprehensive EU-China Investment
Agreement ... will convey both sides' joint commitment towards
stronger cooperation as well as their willingness to envisage
broader ambitions including, once the conditions are right,
towards a deep and comprehensive FTA, as a longer-term
perspective," the two sides said in their summit statement.
Talk of a free-trade deal, which would create a market of
almost 2 billion people, seemed unthinkable just a year ago,
when Brussels prepared to levy punitive import duties on
billions of dollars of Chinese solar panels, setting off the
biggest ever trade dispute between the two partners.
Relations have improved since the sides defused the row,
setting a minimum price for exports of Chinese goods to the EU.
Both China and the EU have something to gain from increased
trade. Europe's economy is barely growing after years of
recession and the continent is suffering from near-record
unemployment, while China's much faster growth is cooling.
British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed strong
support during a trip to Beijing in December for such a deal,
but many other EU members including France, Italy and Spain are
wary, saying China tries to dominate European markets with
cheap, subsidised exports.
China's Xi, on the last leg of a European tour, has put a
free-trade deal at the centre of his EU policy, even using
"panda diplomacy" during his trip to Belgium by visiting two
Chinese pandas on loan to a Belgian zoo to charm officials.
Beijing has a long tradition of using pandas, which are
indigenous to China, to improve relations with other countries.
According to one EU official at Monday's summit, Xi pushed
hard for the EU to consider the free-trade pact. "China wanted
to go further on an FTA," the official said after Xi's meeting
with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European
Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
"Europe agrees to go ahead with this target in the medium
term. We prefer to go ahead first with an investment agreement."
Negotiations towards such an investment agreement are under
way and should make it easier for European countries to do
business in China, a big step that many see as a potential
forerunner to a trade deal.
European companies complain of poor treatment in China, such
as being forced to share sensitive know-how to win access to
Chinese funding and local contracts.
In a statement, China's foreign ministry said both sides
"should start the feasibility study on a free-trade agreement,
and jointly improve the quality and level of China-EU trade".
Europe is China's most important trading partner, while for
the EU, China is second only to the United States. Trade between
the EU and China has doubled since 2003 to more than 1 billion
euros ($1.4 billion) a day.
But the bilateral relationship has been bedevilled by a
series of trade rows ranging from steel and wine to solar
panels. China's ambition to produce more sophisticated products
to compete with European goods also unnerves some Europeans.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by