China's Xi presides over business deals in Germany, while Merkel presses him on free speech

The Associated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, talks to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony of various contracts between Germany and China at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, Pool)

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By GEIR MOULSON, Associated Press

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 a 1 billion-euro ($1.38 billion) agreement for Daimler to expand the production capacity of its joint venture with Beijing Automotive Group, or BAIC; and an accord on closer ties between rival BMW and Chinese partner Brilliance.

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.

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.

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