Li begins first Europe trip

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who is on the first stop of his debut visit to Europe since taking office in March, flew into Zurich late on Thursday.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L, front) is welcomed by Swiss Vice President and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, upon his arrival in Zurich, Switzerland, May 23, 2013. (Xinhua/Ju Peng) 

"The choice of Switzerland as the first destination for my first European trip since I became Chinese premier means that I hope to strengthen bilateral high-level exchanges, achieve new breakthroughs in mutually beneficial cooperation, enhance understanding and friendship between the two peoples and promote the long-term healthy and stable development of our friendly relations," Li said in a written statement upon his arrival.

Li is scheduled to meet with President of the Swiss Confederation Ueli Maurer, Vice President Didier Burkhalter and Head of Federal Department of Economic Affairs Johann Schneider-Ammann.

The two countries are expected to sign a series of agreements to strengthen cooperation in various areas.

On the eve of his visit, Li published a signed article in Neue Zuricher Zeitung, a German-language Swiss daily, highlighting the importance China attaches to its relations with Switzerland.

"Switzerland is the first European destination on the list of countries I will visit after becoming China's premier. In Chinese culture, being 'first' always carries symbolic meaning," Li said in the article.

He pointed out that a free trade agreement (FTA) to be reached between the two countries will bring about more opportunities for bilateral cooperation.

"With the advent of FTA, Switzerland will become the first country in continental Europe and the first of the world's top 20 economies to reach an FTA with China, the implications of which will be significant," Li wrote.

Switzerland is one of the first European countries to recognize China's market economy status and initiated FTA talks with Beijing.

The negotiations have made substantial progress after nine rounds of talks.

China is now Switzerland's largest trade partner in Asia, while Switzerland is China's seventh largest trade partner and the sixth largest source of foreign investment in Europe.

Switzerland is the third leg of Li's four-country tour, which has taken him to India and Pakistan. The last stop is Germany.

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