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Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda attend the signing of a cooperation treaty between China and Poland at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland June 20, 2016. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski/via REUTERS

(reuters_tickers)

By Marcin Goettig

WARSAW (Reuters) - Chinese and Polish leaders welcomed a freight train arriving in Warsaw from China on Monday in a ceremony marking a trade co-operation deal that they said showed the European country's importance as a gateway for Chinese exports.

Munching on Polish apples as another train set off back to China laden with foodstuffs, the presidents of the Asian manufacturing giant and Europe's biggest former Communist country celebrated their newly enhanced commercial ties.

"We have agreed to upgrade the relations between China and Poland to a comprehensive strategic partnership," Xi Jinping told reporters at a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda before the train laden with Chinese electronics and auto parts arrived.

While most Chinese exports travel by sea, the overland route by rail via Russia is quicker and brings goods directly into the heart of the continent, offering EU member Poland significant opportunities.

"I am convinced that Poland can still play a very important role in operating the connection between China and Europe. This will ... bring tangible, real benefits for both nations," Xi said.

The visit marks a strong push to boost political and business ties with Poland, the biggest ex-communist bloc state led since October by a right-wing eurosceptic government.

President Duda said: "I hope that Poland will become a gateway to Europe for China," adding greater co-operation with China would mean more business for Poland's deepwater container terminal in Gdansk on the Baltic Sea.

The Warsaw visit follows Xi's trip to Serbia, where he said the southern European country could also play a role in Beijing's plan for a new "Silk Road" to boost trade with Europe, Asia and Africa.

Polish freight group PKP Cargo which operates 20 trains a week between China and Poland, hopes for growing trade on the rails, which, with journeys of 11-14 days, is twice as fast as sea transport and cheaper that air freight.

Poland is keen to increase its exports to China, which were worth about $2 billion last year, dwarfed by its exports to Germany worth $54 billion.

It is particularly keen to find export markets for agricultural goods since neighbouring Russia banned EU food imports following the Ukrainian crisis.

China is the biggest pork consumer in the world, but it put an embargo on Polish pork exports worth nearly 100 million euros($113 million) in 2014 following cases of African Swine Fever in Poland.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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