ZAGREB, July 14, 2018 – Croatia will host a summit meeting of 16 Central and Eastern European countries and China in 2019, and the Croatian Foreign and European Affairs Ministry sees it as a huge opportunity for strengthening the overall relations with China, notably on the economic front, including the development of infrastructure, tourism and SMEs, the ministry’s State Secretary Zdravka Bušić says in an interview with Hina.
The 16+1 format encompasses a great number of activities, and Croatia is supposed now to find its niche inside that format, says Bušić, who is the Croatian coordinator for the initiative. Croatia has recognised possibilities of reinforcing its relations with China through that platform 16+1, she added.
During the recent summit meeting of the 16+1 format in Bulgaria on 7 July, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković announced that Croatia would host the next summit meeting in 2019. Thus in 2019, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang will pay an official visit to Croatia.
Underscoring the significance of the visit of the prime minister of that great power to Croatia, Bušić recalls that Prime Minister Plenković has met his Chinese counterpart three times: during summit meetings in Riga, Budapest and Sofia.
Commenting on the decision to award the hosting of the next 16+1 summit meeting to Croatia, Bušić says that China which has launched this initiative, has seen that “it has implemented a series of very successful activities” in its relations with Croatia over the past two years.
Of course, one of key items is the agreement on the construction of Pelješac Bridge, she recalls. The contract on the construction of 2.08 billion kuna Pelješac Bridge, to connect the southern Adriatic peninsula of Pelješac in Dubrovnik-Neretva County with the mainland, and access roads, was signed on April 23 by the Hrvatske Ceste road operator and China Road and Bridge Corporation. 85% of the acceptable costs will be financed with EU funds.
During the fourth ministerial conference between China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries in Ningbo, China, in June, State Secretary at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs, Transport and Infrastructure Tomislav Mihotić told Hina that Pelješac Bridge was the first EU-funded project won by a Chinese company in a public tender. By winning the contract to build the Pelješac bridge, China has been given the opportunity to enter the EU market and participate in other major infrastructure projects to be largely financed with EU funds, Mihotić said at the time.
The project to build Pelješac Bridge is a synthesis of the idea behind the 16+1 initiative of eastern and central European countries and China, PM Plenković said at a news conference held after the Sofia summit meeting, pointing out that this is the biggest project of national importance, financed by the EU and built by a Chinese company.
Apart from the future Pelješac Bridge, other infrastructure projects such as the modernisation of Croatian railway network and seaports are perceived as an opportunity for boosting economic cooperation between Croatia and China. Chinese companies can be included in the upgrading of Croatian seaports and in improving the railway connection from the seaport of Rijeka to Hungary.
Media outlets have recently reported that a Chinese investor – according to some reports the Jiangxiong Hua company – planned to enter the ownership structure of the Port of Zadar and that it would initially invest 215 million kuna.
Recently, Croatia’s Končar and the Chinese partners have signed a joint venture contract. Chinese companies are also eyeing other possible investments in Croatia.
The 16+1 initiative is part of China’s One Belt, One Road mega project, a sort of modern-day Silk Road considered to be one of the most ambitious projects in the world. The initiative’s objective is to enhance cooperation between central and eastern European countries and China in trade and investments, transport connectivity, finance, agriculture, science and technology, health, education and culture.
The initiative includes 11 EU member states – Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia – as well as 5 EU membership aspirants: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
The idea for a platform for cooperation between China and central and eastern European countries was born after their first economic-trade forum in 2011 in Budapest. Six years have passed since the first summit held in 2012 and subsequent summits were held in Bucharest, Belgrade, China, Riga, and the last was held in Budapest in 2017. The Sofia summit was the seventh. The eighth summit meeting is likely to take place in Zagreb in the first half of 2019.
Bušić says that the event will be also a great opportunity for promoting Croatia in China whose media outlets will extensively cover the summit meeting. This can additionally facilitate tourist trade, according to Bušić. In 2017, the arrivals of Chinese visitors to Croatia soared by 50% compared to 2016. Throughout 2018, an estimated 200,000 Chinese guests are expected in Croatia.
In mid-May, the director of the Croatian National Tourism Board (HTZ) Kristjan Staničić, who then attended the ITB China travel exhibition in Shanghai, told Hina that China was a strategically important market for Croatia’s tourism, adding that the number of Chinese travellers to Croatia had risen by 40% this year. Croatia presented its tourism services at the ITB China as part of the large European Travel Commission stand.
Staničić underscored it was important to simplify the visa regime with China and introduce direct flights between Chinese and Croatian destinations.
According to readers of the Chinese edition of the US-based Travel+Leisure magazine, Croatia has become the most sought-after European destination for Chinese tourists in 2018. “The award confirms Croatia’s excellent potential as a tourist destination on a large and exceptionally important market. Furthermore, it also confirms our assessment and decision to strengthen our presence in China with additional promotional material and opening an HTZ office in Shanghai this year. Last year’s results from that market are encouraging with a high increase in arrivals of 57% and almost 50% more overnight stays compared to 2016,” Staničić told Hina earlier this year.
Dubrovnik will soon be the venue of a conference of tourism ministers of the 16+1 format, and the event is set to be held on 18-20 September.
In late 2017, the Croatian Chamber of Commerce (HGK) opened a branch office in Shanghai.