Connect to share and comment

Watch panda diplomacy in action

And find out why Belgium's Dutch-speakers aren't happy about it.

Panda diplomacy china belgiumEnlarge
Belgian officials meet giant panda Hao Hao at the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, Feb. 22, 2014. (AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese leader Xi Jinping embarks on the last leg of a swing through Europe on Sunday meeting Belgium's royals and visiting a pair of giant pandas ahead of an historic EU visit, the first ever by a Chinese president.

Xi's maiden European tour 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 European Union headquarters for the first time, when he meets 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.

On the bilateral Belgium front, the tiny country is throwing in 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 Monday.

Belgium's King Philippe, who ascended to the throne last year, and glamorous wife Queen Mathilde also join the Chinese pair for the official opening Sunday of a special park for two giant pandas on loan from China for the next 15 years.

Female Hao Hao and companion Xing Hui too received a red carpet welcome from Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo when they landed in February as part of China's "panda diplomacy".

Pandas divide Belgium

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.

More from GlobalPost: The sad truth about panda diplomacy

The problem is that the rare bears, a reliable draw for visitors, are in a zoo in French-speaking southern Wallonia, some 60 kilometers 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 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 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 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.

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.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/benelux/140330/panda-diplomacy-belgium-china