BERLIN (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over the signing of a string of deals with automakers and others as he started a visit to Germany on Friday, while Chancellor Angela Merkel prodded him on the importance of free speech.
Xi was making his first visit as president to Germany, Europe's biggest economy, as part of a wider European tour that also has taken him to neighboring France. Business ties took center stage at Xi's meeting with Merkel. The two leaders oversaw the signing of deals including agreements for automakers Daimler and BMW to deepen ties with their Chinese partners, and a deal between the countries' central banks that will allow yuan-denominated payments to be cleared and settled in Germany's financial center, Frankfurt.
China and Germany, two of the world's leading exporters, had a bilateral trade volume last year of 140.4 billion euros ($193 billion) - making China Germany's No. 3 trade partner, ahead of the United States.
Merkel said Germany would push for the quick conclusion of an investment agreement between China and the European Union "which could also be a precursor for a future free trade agreement." Merkel also touched on human rights and said she had made clear that "broad and free expression of opinion is of course a very important element to advance a society's creativity." Xi didn't respond to that.
Xi's visit comes as the EU has imposed sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. China, Russia's usual ally on the U.N. Security Council, earlier this month abstained on a resolution declaring a Russian-backed referendum on Crimea's status illegal rather than joining Moscow in using its veto.
Asked whether China should stand up more assertively against Russia's actions in Ukraine, Xi said that "China has no private interests" on the matter and added that Beijing always insists on non-interference in other countries' internal affairs, as well as respecting nations' territorial integrity.
China has "an open position toward all concepts that serve to calm the situation and bring about a political solution," Xi said through an interpreter. Later Friday, Xi delivered a speech on China's foreign policy to the Koerber Foundation, a German think tank. Xi said China was committed to peaceful development and "would never seek hegemony or expansion."
Pressed on China's handling of territorial disputes with some of its neighbors, Xi said Beijing "will not provoke troubles ourselves but we will not fear troubles provoked by others." "When it comes to our sovereignty and territorial integrity we will firmly safeguard these interests," he said.
The Chinese leader also said domestic reforms would continue, with the aim of strengthening the rule of law in China. Human rights groups have criticized harsh court rulings against dissidents and the poor in China.
Frank Jordans contributed to this report.