The European Union and China hope to use two summits in 2020 to build on their "strategic partnership" but major differences loom over human rights, trade and security.
With new leadership in place in Brussels, the EU hopes to revitalise ties with Beijing — a vital trade partner but not one that shares Europe's views on freedom and democracy.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met the new president of the European Council Charles Michel on Tuesday, two days after meeting the new EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell.
The meetings come ahead of two regular summits in 2020 — with Europe represented by Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — and a special event in the German city of Leipzig.
The second summit will see 27 European leaders — assuming Britain has quit the bloc by then — meet the Chinese leadership during Germany's stint holding the EU's rotating presidency.
Germany called the second summit in a bid to forge greater EU unity on China, aware that some eastern EU states have cosied up to Beijing in return for big-ticket infrastructure projects.
Michel's spokesman said he used the meeting with Wang to insist on the "need to promote free trade and investments that respect a level playing field and reciprocity" — EU jargon for telling China to stop playing fast and loose with subsidies and product standards.
The former Belgian premier also urged the Chinese to step up efforts to tackle climate change — a key priority for the EU, which has just agreed to a target of carbon neutrality by 2050.
A joint statement by Borrell and Wang after their meeting was cordial in tone, and an official described the atmosphere as "very positive".
But elsewhere in the EU machinery there are grave doubts about the extent to which China should be treated as a partner rather than a rival or competitor.
European diplomats said there were concerns about China's "growing influence" and its international policies, which have become more assertive under President Xi Jinping.
Beijing has repeatedly been accused of carrying out espionage in the West — stealing trade secrets as well as more traditional military and political snooping.
Earlier this month NATO issued its first formal position on China, recognising the "challenges" posed by the Asian giant.
A key concern has been the role of Chinese companies — and Huawei in particular — will be allowed in developing next generation 5G mobile networks in Europe.
Washington has pressed Europe to ban Huawei, saying the firm is too close to the Chinese government and therefore not to be trusted with vital strategic infrastructure.
China's human rights record has been a major sore point for the EU and Borrell raised both the crackdown on Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and the protests in Hong Kong with Wang — though no further details were given.