BRUSSELS— At the height of the euro zone crisis, a Chinese official quipped that Europe was being reduced to a “wonderful theme park” for tourists. That view no longer has much currency as Beijing recalibrates links with the world's biggest trade bloc.
Beijing's growing realization that China needs strong influence in Europe's de facto capital, Brussels, has been cemented by President Xi Jinping's visit to the EU's institutions this week, the first ever by a Chinese leader.
Xi did not come offering business deals and little of substance came out of a summit on Monday, but a change in tone from confrontation to cooperation could mark a new chapter in Sino-European ties, EU officials say.
Nurtured over the past decade as China and its businesses seek to protect and promote their interests in Europe, Beijing's diplomatic charm offensive is being consolidated by Xi, who became president a year ago with an ambitious reform agenda.
Gone are the days when China maintained a low-key embassy focused mainly on Belgium and the Chinese ambassador would decline invitations to attend lunches, let alone speak at them.
With her designer French handbags, China's new ambassador to the EU, Yang Yanyi, has become a regular at cocktail parties and talks on EU-China relations since arriving in January, handing out business cards that even carry her mobile phone number.
The now 90-strong diplomatic mission to the European Union, housed in a vast former Hewlett-Packard building, has in recent months opened its doors for families to try calligraphy and ping-pong. Diplomats have thrown a Chinese new year's party with dragon dancers for the Brussels diplomatic elite and were instrumental in organizing the loan of two giant pandas to a Belgian zoo.
Ambassador Yang even recently charmed her way into the European Parliament's 'President Salon', a rooftop hall usually reserved for visiting dignitaries, to promote Chinese telecoms company Huawei. That was despite EU suspicions that Huawei owes its success to subsidies Europe says are illegal.
“I have no illusions that our partnership will be irritant free,” Yang told Reuters. “Disagreements and disputes are normal, but we can work them out.”
Washington, Beijing and… Brussels
Such language was unheard of a year ago, when Beijing and Brussels appeared to be on the verge of a trade war because of a multi-billion euro dispute over Chinese solar panel imports, the biggest ever trade spat between the two.
While that case, in which Brussels accused Beijing of trying to corner the European market with cheap Chinese goods, was resolved amicably, it also reminded China that Brussels has the power to affect its interests.
Brussels' glass-and-steel European quarter of diplomatic missions, the European Commission and the European Parliament, not only makes policy for the bloc's 500 million citizens but is designed to project Europe's influence across the world.
“When it comes to international regulation and decision-making, there are three cities in the world that count: Washington, Beijing and Brussels,” said a former senior U.S. official who has worked in all three capitals.
While Chinese officials had their doubts during the euro zone's near-meltdown, Beijing has taken that message on board.
From tracking rulings by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to decisions on EU trade policy, Chinese officials and companies are watching closely, learning the EU's acronyms, jargon and working practices, and establishing how best to act.
Whereas Chinese companies once kept a low profile and relied on the Ministry of Commerce to represent their interests, major corporations such as Huawei, the world's second largest telecoms equipment firm, now have their own public relations teams, and others are following suit.
Leading Chinese media, including state-run news agency Xinhua, the People's Daily and China Daily have an expanding presence to keep track of China's widespread involvement with the EU across issues of trade, finance, law and regulation.
Xinhua, for example, now has 50 journalists accredited to the EU, more than any other news organization in the world.
“Once we moved here, we realized the importance of Brussels because it's the center of Europe, with all the capitals linked together,” said Leo Sun, the head of European public affairs for Huawei, which opened a Brussels office in 2009.
Call off the news conference
Even government agencies such as China's aviation authority use public relations and lobbying firms in Brussels, while the Ministry of Commerce can act as an adviser to Chinese companies facing EU trade investigations, helping them to line up the best consultants to lobby for them.
There are growing pains, however.
EU officials say the unwillingness of senior Chinese officials to hold news conferences following high-level meetings in Brussels is a constant source of conflict because the European Union prides itself on its openness to the media.
Following one meeting with Chinese ministers in Brussels last year, one EU official made a point of taking extra questions at a news conference rather than walking his Chinese counterpart to the car, as the Chinese delegation requested.
The European Commission also insists on flying its best EU interpreters back from Beijing to Brussels to ensure EU officials are properly translated into Chinese from English and French at such events to avoid their comments being tampered with.
Brussels is also resisting China's calls for a free-trade agreement with the European Union because of Beijing's policy of heavily subsidizing state-owned exporters.
China wants to be considered a “market economy” - meaning decisions are made based on supply and demand, not the state - to receive better treatment in trade disputes.
“There are serious differences and frictions in the relationship,” said Duncan Freeman, a political analyst at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. “But these are becoming more normal, which is the way it should be."