German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker put on a united front when they sat down for discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Elysee Palace in Paris.
They came together as China ramps up efforts to find investors for its New Silk Road trade project, which Italy has already independently signed.
Italys support for the Belt and Road Initiative was a diplomatic victory for Xi, whose ambitious plan for an international network of ports, roads, railways and pipelines has faced criticism for the opacity of some deals.
Many Western governments see the plan as a Chinese push for geopolitical influence, not just for business.
Italys bilateral embrace of Chinas prestige project irritated many of its EU partners when the bloc was looking for a more robust collective stance toward Beijing. Italian officials stressed that the agreement isn not legally binding and doesnt weaken Italys commitment to its Western political and security alliances.
Macron, flanked by Merkel and Juncker, received Xi in France after his visit to Italy and Monaco as part of a European tour.
At the end of an hour-long meeting the three European leaders agreed that a strong partnership with China has to be based on clear foundations.
Macron said: Obviously power cannot be exercised without divergences. None of us are naïve. But we respect China and naturally hear from China that it respects the unity of the European Union as the values it carries in the world.
Tuesdays meeting was held before a summit due to take place on April 9 between the EU and China.
Macron said that the EU and China need to build strong multilateralism on issues such as peace, international security and climate change.
He added that there is also a need to strengthen the dialogue for a common vision of the future of multilateralism, from which United States president Donald Trump has distanced himself.
Juncker called on China to give EU companies the same access to its market as their Chinese counterparts.
He said: Europe, united, wants an in-depth partnership with China, based on reciprocity, and is committed to fair and effective multilateralism.
Xi was asked how the New Silk Road, a huge infrastructure project launched by China in 2013 to improve connections with Europe, the Middle East and Africa, will benefit European interests.
Merkel described the project as important and said we as Europeans want to play a role but a certain reciprocity is necessary.
The Chinese president said the initiative has enriched the concept of multilateralism and that all the countries of the world are welcome.
The current relations between China and Europe are marked above all by cooperation, it is true that there are points of disagreement, also competition, but it is a positive competition, he added.
Xis visit to France coincides with the 55th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations and will be followed by another from Macron to China in the coming months.
A number of agreements were also signed between France and China during the trip. The most significant was the order of 300 aircraft by the Chinese state aeronautical consortium CASC to the European aeronautical manufacturer Airbus, for around 28,000 million euros.