A freight train leaves Chongqing for Europe, on April 3, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua] Bilateral trade between China and the European Union will maintain steady growth this year as the two sides have expanded a number of free trade programs to boost their economic and trade ties, experts and business leaders said on Friday. They made the remarks after Eurostat, the EU's statistical office, announced on Thursday that China maintained its position as the EU's largest trading partner as of January. In the first month of 2021, the EU exported 16.1 billion euros ($19.2 billion) worth of goods to China, up 6.6 percent year-on-year, while imports from China declined 3.8 percent to 33.3 billion euros, according to the EU's statistical body. "A large number of European firms, in particular those from the advanced manufacturing, consumer goods and automotive sectors, have been benefiting from the fast recovery of the Chinese market and the latter has been playing a vital part in pushing the EU economy to get back on track," said Ma Yu, a senior researcher at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation. The conclusion of the talks on the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the implementation of the Agreement on Geographical Indications between China and the EU, and booming China-EU freight train services have demonstrated the strong resilience of the two sides in the past year, despite challenges and geopolitical headwinds, said Jiang Feng, director-general of the department of duty collection at the General Administration of Customs of China. Their growing bilateral trade and investment volume also showed the world that economies can compete in some fields but can also work together, both for their own interests and for the broader global interest, said Tu Xinquan, a professor of foreign trade at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. Eurostat said China has been the EU's top trading partner since July 2020, a position previously held by the United States. China's trade with the EU soared 39.8 percent on a yearly basis to 779.04 billion yuan in the first two months of 2021, according to the General Administration of Customs of China. In addition to shipping their products manufactured from their plants in China to other parts of the world, European business leaders said that concrete and effective initiatives taken by the Chinese government, including the Foreign Investment Law, updated negative lists in pilot free trade zones and high-level opening-up under the new development paradigm, have further fostered a favorable business environment. Rajat Agarwal, president of China operations at Henkel, the German industrial and consumer goods manufacturer, said the company established several production lines at its Zhuhai plant last year to provide high-impact thermal products and solutions for its customers in China and across the globe. As China and its partners signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement and China plans to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, Agarwal said these moves will pave the way for a greater level of market access. "We consider China to be one of the most important markets globally and we will continuously strive to grow our business in the country," said Caroline Wu, managing director of Maersk China. Instead of investing heavily in shipping operations, the Danish company has been busy expanding its rail freight services, land assets and airfreight services across China. It has opened 35 railway terminals in inland China over the past two years. About 25 of them are able to provide sea-rail bill of lading services.