Last week the EU officially announced that Chinese president Xi Jinping is to visit Brussels at end of March for summit talks, with the premier's arrival to come just after that of US president Barack Obama.
"Over the past 10 years, the EU-China relationship has grown tremendously. We have become more interconnected and we have increased our coordination," is how European commission president José Manuel Barroso describes the current state of European and Chinese relations.
According to Barroso, in the past few years, the EU and China have become highly interdependent, with the EU being China's biggest economic partner during the last nine years. In 2012, bilateral trade in goods reached a value of €433.8bn, a four-fold increase compared with 10 years ago, creating jobs and opportunities for both parties. There has also been a massive increase in the exchange of people between the two powers, with six million travelling in 2013 between China and Europe.
The commission wants to make it easier for people to travel, with the Portuguese official highlighting exchanges and partnerships between the populations as being "essential to ensuring respective growth and prosperity".
However, for the EU, the strategic relationship with China is not simply about bilateral exchanges, but also cooperating on global issues on the international stage. For the commission president believes that "this is where the true nature of our strategic partnership comes into focus. We have been dedicated, in recent years, to improve mutual understanding and trust, with important benefits on complex matters, such as Iran or the fight against piracy, where our joint efforts can make a real contribution to global security." Barroso highlighted the progress made in negotiations with Iran on their nuclear programme, as an example of EU-China collaboration.
Another policy area identified by Barroso where Europe and China can develop closer cooperation as partners is in sustainable development. "Green growth is a shared priority: emerging green sectors contribute to sustainable growth of the global economy and are creating new business opportunities for European and Chinese companies.
China's ambitions to make its economy greener, and its massive urbanisation programme, also offer plenty of opportunities for using the EU's edge in building resource efficient cities and offering a higher quality of life for their inhabitants, as well as creating new business opportunities for EU companies."
The visit of president Xi Jinping follows last year's 16th EU-China summit in November, which marked 10 years of the establishment of the EU-China comprehensive strategic partnership. At end of the talks, both parties agreed on a long-term approach to take their strategic partnership forward by channelling their efforts into areas of cooperation that were seen as beneficial to both parties.
At last year's summit, Barroso said he wanted to see EU and China improve "in our work in tackling some of the big issues facing the world nowadays – such as climate change, cooperation in the G20 and security in each other's neighbourhoods, including the crisis in Syria". Another area of international instability on which the EU wants to work closely with China is the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsular.
The Portuguese official also wanted to see better cooperation relating to innovation. "Innovation is at the heart of the EU's strategy for growth, and China is one of the most important partners in this endeavour." He further added, "Encouraging deeper interaction and people-to-people exchanges is another important part of our agenda, and both sides are already developing new initiatives on culture, education and youth, as well as on tourism.
New areas for cooperation, such as development and cyber security, are being introduced as well." As such, for the commissioner, the relationship between Europe and China must continue to be a major source of economic growth, jobs, development and innovation for both sides.
Even the recent threat of a trade war over solar panels has not undermined closer EU-China relations, according to Barroso. "It showed a willingness and ability for the EU and China to work jointly to deal with challenging trade issues… bilateral trade irritants sometimes stand in the way of developing a long-term vision. But we should build upon the experience gained to in the solar panel case to sit around the table and proactively solve issues before they turn into disputes."
The EU-China summit last year saw the start of negotiations on the EU wide bilateral investment and trade agreement (BIT). Currently, China has 26 individual BITs with various EU member states. However, both parties want to see a comprehensive trade agreement across the whole of Europe.
Barroso welcomed the launch of negotiations, saying, "Both China and the EU believe that it is the right time to launch these negotiations. Our member states, businesses and the European parliament all support this agreement because it will aim at removing market access barriers and provide a high level of protection to investors and investments in our respective markets."
For the commission president, the EU and China's economies have become increasingly integrated as European businesses work closer together to build products and sell services globally. "But our bilateral investment flows are still too low. This agreement will boost them by providing a simpler and more secure and predictable legal framework to investors for a long term investment relationship."
Despite EU-China relations being dominated by trade, Barroso has showed a willingness to stress to the Chinese the importance of human rights. In China he said, "We firmly believe that the protection of human rights is the best way to preserve social justice and ultimately social stability of nations."
Barroso sums up the EU's relationship with China, describing the two powers as, "Global actors in a multipolar world sharing the responsibility for building a secure, prosperous and fairer world, with the comprehensive strategic partnership an opportunity to pave the way for even more cooperation and exchanges that benefit us all".