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President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to the United States grabbed global headlines. By going to Britain, the Chinese leader has sent an equally important signal of his interests and determination in deepening and expanding China’s ties with Britain — but also with Europe.

Beijing and Washington certainly need to talk to each other on a range of bilateral and international issues. And the Sino-American agreements reached on cybersecurity and climate change will help ease relations between the world’s two leading political and economic actors.

But President Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s many visits to Brussels, Paris and Berlin this year — and now Xi’s high-profile trip to Britain — underline that China and Europe have also made a strategic choice to further develop and expand relations.

China’s focus on Europe and on Britain is important for several reasons. Tackling challenges in a multipolar and multi-complex world requires more than cooperation between China and the US. It also demands working in tandem with the European Union and its 28 member states.

Britain, given its global role and influence is, of course, especially important. President Xi’s visit, including his high-level meetings, underline to a watching world — and to the rest of Europe — that China still views Britain as a key international player.

Significantly, Xi’s visit follows a trip to China by UK Chancellor George Osborne last month, during which he said Britain should be China’s “best partner in the West”.

It’s not just Britain that wants closer ties with China, however. Germany remains a strong contender for the title of Beijing’s ‘best friend’ in Europe. And more generally while relations between China and individual EU states are important, ties with the EU are also improving, with the launch of the connectivity platform and the agreement to cooperate on developing 5G networks.

Europe certainly has the markets China needs for its exports — and trade is still booming. European expertise and know-how is critically important to help meet China’s urbanisation, climate, innovation and other developmental challenges. Most recently, there is a focus on synergies between the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project and Europe’s own investment blueprint for transport, digital and technology networks. Britain and British companies have a key role to play in such cooperation, both on a bilateral level but also through the EU.

True, the EU’s many recent crises have eroded much of its lustre. Last year has been especially difficult as EU leaders have grappled with continuing troubles in the Eurozone, struggled to tackle the influx of refugees fleeing war and conflict in Syria and Africa while also dealing with longer-term problems of low growth and high unemployment.

For the next few months, the focus in London, Brussels and in other EU capitals will be on Britain and the country’s upcoming referendum on its membership of the EU.

The EU is hoping that Britain will opt to stay in. And while no EU leader would say so in public, many are clearly hoping that President Xi gives a clear but subtle message to British citizens to vote in favour of EU membership. As such, it is especially significant that the Chinese president has met leaders of the opposition parties and parliamentary leaders.

But that’s not the only reason that the EU kept a close watch on President Xi’s speeches and meetings in Britain. China-watchers in Brussels and elsewhere in the EU wanted to learn more about the state of the Chinese economy after the market volatility over the summer and what to expect as China’s development priorities in the upcoming 13th Five-Year Plan.

Meanwhile, Xi’s speech in London provided further insight into China’s hopes for the internationalisation of the renminbi and also information on China’s priorities as it prepares to take over as chair of the G20.

Certainly as in other EU capitals, the focus was on business, with Britain looking for Chinese investments in key projects such as a high speed rail line in the north of the country and a deal on Chinese investments in the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant. The UK is now China’s largest investment destination country in Europe.

More investment opportunities for Chinese companies opened up in the railway, energy, aviation and telecommunications industries. Significantly, leading the way for other European countries, Britain joined the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite opposition from Washington, earlier this year. Within the EU, Britain’s opinion is important as the EU and China negotiate their Bilateral Investment Treaty and will be even more important if and when the two sides start discussions on a Free Trade Agreement.

There used to be a time not so long ago when China’s friendships with individual EU member states were viewed with suspicion by Brussels. This was especially the case as regards China’s ‘special relationship’ with Germany and the burgeoning ties between Beijing and the Central and Eastern European states. Fortunately, such unease is now mostly over, with many policymakers agreeing that stronger bilateral ties between China and the individual EU member states — including Britain — help to consolidate and deepen the wider EU-China relationship.

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