As Gordana Grgas/Novac writes on the 8th of April, 2019, if there was a European tender held solely to attract Chinese investment, the champion would certainly be Great Britain, followed by Germany, and then immediately by Italy and France. Croatia might not be anywhere near the top of China’s European ”wish list”, but despite that, the Chinese interest just keeps on coming…
The countries which make up Central and Eastern Europe are low on the aforementioned European scale, even though with China, at least since the year 2012, they have enjoyed a special relationship through the China + 16 initiative, which, as a parallel diplomatic format, tends to irritate the larger, more powerful members of the European Union, as well as the European Commission itself. One of lowest on the list is Hungary with its Eurosceptic government led by Viktor Orban, and Croatia is at the very bottom, but the desire is to alter that.
This week, there is an official visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqianga to Croatia, and the eighth summit of sixteen countries of Central and Eastern Europe with China down in Dalmatia’s southernmost city of Dubrovnik, and it might be the easiest thing to look at it all as part of a political show that could act as bait for investment. Whether or not this investment will really happen and what shape that might take, whether it will be done mainly through private projects, for example in tourism, or through major state projects in the rail and port sector, is not yet clear at all.
Croatia will sign nine general memoranda with China in the areas of trade, investment, agriculture, transport, science, technology and innovation, education, sport and tourism, and the most convenient customs administration protocol that will enable the export of Croatian dairy products, which are greatly loved in China. Croatia also intends to join the Asian development investment and infrastructure bank headquartered in Beijing, how much that will cost Croatia however, is not yet known.
How large European countries cooperate with China was demonstrated just ten days ago by the Italians and the French. For the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Rome signed 20 agreements (and joined One Band, a one way system that connects China with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa, and expands its trade and influence). In Paris, 15 such agreements were signed, where either contracted or announced transactions amounting to billions of euros were dealt with, covering a wide range of areas – from exports of Sicilian red oranges and French frozen chicken to the opening of Italian ports for Chinese investors, sales of 300 Airbus aircraft, energy projects, shipbuilding, etc.
After the construction of Croatia’s much anticipated Pelješac bridge, which is funded primarily by European Union money, Croatia hopes for more Chinese investments in national transport projects. This regards the port of Rijeka and the entire Rijeka traffic route, including the line from Rijeka to Karlovac, as well as projects such as airports.
According to data which takes the whole of Europe into account, during the period from 2000 to 2018, almost 47 billion euros of direct investment from China was invested in Britain, Germany saw 22 billion euros, Italy saw 15.3 billion euros, and France saw 14.3 billion euros. Hungary saw a significantly smaller figure of 2.4 billion euros from the Chinese, Poland saw even less with 1.4 billion euros, Romania saw 900 million euros, and Croatia saw just 300 million euros. A stark contrast to the United Kingdom, which is by far one of Europe’s most powerful nations.
In the region, the intensity is getting stronger, and in neighbouring Serbia, Chinese loans have come in handy when building transport infrastructure and energy projects and, but that medal, like any other, has two sides, and the takeover of companies hasn’t always been met with welcome arms by the Serbs.
The aforementioned data report shows that the culmination of Chinese investment in the EU was reached back in 2016, largely through the take over of companies, and over the last two years, it has fallen, which is attributed to more stringent rules implemented by some EU member states, as well as increased capital controls conducted by Beijing.
For Zagreb, it was a bit uncomfortable to get closer to Communist China in the above mentioned period, as the common policy of overseeing and limiting the Chinese penetration of the ”Old Continent”, especially in strategic and technologically sensitive areas, was being undermined. That chapter however, appears to be well and truly over in Croatia’s eyes.
While large investments and projects are anxiously anticipated here in Croatia (and the Chinese interest in Rijeka and the Rijeka-Karlovac line is at least nine years old), data on trade relations show that there is a deficit. State Secretary Nataša Mikuš Žigman notes that there has been a noticeable increase in the volume of trade between Croatia and China, but imports are growing more than exports are. Last year, exports of goods amounted to 133.4 million euros, an increase of 19 percent when compared to 2017, while imports amounted to 803 million euros, an increase of 15.6 percent.
Croatian companies might be able to export more to China in the future, and the business forum being held in Dubrovnik is an excellent chance to showcase some innovative Croatian export ideas, but for now, the main export products continue to be raw or semi-finished products such as stone, leather, untreated wood and polymers, while when it comes to imports, we can see the reign of traditional Chinese consumer goods, white electronics and telecommunications equipment, as well as a constantly increasing number of Chinese tourists visiting Croatia, too.
As the Chinese continue to ramp up their business in Croatia, from Pelješac bridge to Rijeka’s port, more announcements continue to appear, and just recently we reported on the Chinese plan to open up a car factory tucked away among the citrus trees of southern Dalmatia’s fertile Neretva valley, more precisely in the Nova sela business zone near Kula Norinska in Dubrovnik-Neretva County. While many remain concerned about Chinese influence in Croatia, many others are much more occupied and lured by the promise of an economic boost and employment opportunities.
Make sure to follow our dedicated business page for more information on China-Croatia relations and much more.