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China's Xi receives royal welcome in Belgium

Belgium---Xi Jinping received a royal welcome and an honorary knighthood in Brussels on Sunday at the start of a three-day visit that will see him become the first Chinese leader to visit EU headquarters.

Dozens of royal horsemen escorted Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan as they rolled up to the Brussels palace to be greeted by King Philippe and Queen Mathilde 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.

Later Sunday, the royal couple will join the Chinese pair for the official opening of a special park for two giant pandas on loan from China for the next 15 years.

Xi's trip 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 U.S. President Barack Obama.

Xi is to meet Monday with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

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 the park to see female Hao Hao and companion Xing Hui, who arrived in Belgium in February, will be 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 kilometers from Brussels, not far from the city of Mons whose last mayor is 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 favor 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.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a ceremony at the Unknown Soldier monument at the Congress Column in Brussels on Sunday, March 30. (AFP)

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