BEIJING Projects along China's New Silk Road must be open to Europeans, the EU's top diplomat said on Thursday, as China's prepares its first summit dedicated to the ambitious plan to link Asia, Africa and Europe.
President Xi Jinping has championed what China calls the "One Belt, One Road" initiative involving billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure including roads, railways, ports and power grids.
"Obviously, for us it is essential that the opportunities are opened up for all including Europeans," the EU's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, told students at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing.
"I know that some in the world are concerned about a more confident and outward looking China. I do not share this view," she said.
Representatives of 110 countries, including most Asian leaders, will gather in Beijing next month for the New Silk Road summit, China's biggest diplomatic event of the year.
China has sought to improve ties with 16 Central and Eastern Europe countries directly under an initiative launched in November 2016, dubbed "16+1", to fund mostly infrastructure development in Europe.
China and the European Union should promote a "positive signal" of economic globalisation and free and fair trade, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Mogherini on Tuesday.
Mogherini and China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, spoke on Tuesday about the need to work together on hot-spot issues including North Korea and Syria, as well as the need to avoid protectionism.
Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, China has made overtures towards boosting cooperation with the EU to guard against any protectionist "American First" policies under Trump, European diplomats have said.
Europe's climate commissioner said last month that China and the EU could not expect the same leadership from the Trump administration, after the U.S. president moved to undo the climate change regulations of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
But China's cheap steel exports, crackdown on rights activists, a restrictive new law on foreign non-governmental organizations and assertiveness in the South China Sea threaten prospects of warming relations with Europe.
President Xi has made a vigorous defence of globalisation and painted a picture of China as a "wide open" economy, but foreign business groups complain that China discriminates by limiting access to the Chinese market.
The EU has been looking to sign a bilateral investment treaty with China since 2012, a deal that would make it easier for European companies to do business in China and replace trade deals between China and separate countries.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Robert Birsel)