16+1 Format Boosts Croatia-China Relations

By 5 April 2019

ZAGREB, April 5, 2019 - Croatia-China relations have intensified in recent years, notably through the 16+1 format in which the heads of state or government of Central and Eastern European Counties (CEEC) and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang will meet in Dubrovnik on 11 and 12 April.

In the past two and a half years, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and his Chinese counterpart have held five meetings, which Plenković says shows that the 16+1 format facilitates the efforts of small European countries to develop relations with the 1.3 billion-strong economy.

"This format gives an opportunity to countries of our size to build relations with China, which has opened up to the world and has shifted its focus from exports. It now wants to import, buy our products and services," Plenković said recently at the EU summit in Brussels.

China considers the 16+1 initiative to be part of its mega project "One Belt, One Road", which is viewed as the 21st century Silk Road initiative and one of the most ambitious projects in the world. The idea of a cooperation platform between China and the 16 CEEC countries emerged after their first business forum in Budapest in 2011.

The 16 countries are: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Serbia. There are six observers: Austria, Belarus, Greece, Switzerland, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Foreign Affairs Service.

The eighth edition of the summit meeting of China and 16 Central and East European Countries, which the Croatian government describes as the biggest foreign affairs conference on Croatia's soil, is scheduled for 11-12 April in Dubrovnik. Seven years have passed since the first summit in Warsaw in 2012 and subsequent summits were held in Bucharest, Belgrade, China, Riga and Budapest. The Sofia summit, organised in 2018, was the seventh.

Responding to comments that Brussels is not enthusiastic about the 16+1 initiative, Premier Li has underscored on several occasions that this initiative is not a geopolitical platform and that it is open to other countries and institutions as partners.

Croatia has emphasised the fact that it is developing its relations with China on three pillars: bilaterally, through the EU-China dialogue and within the 16+1 format.

The Dubrovnik summit includes two of these three dimensions: bilateral and multilateral.

The Chinese premier is coming to Zagreb after the EU-China summit in Brussels on 9 April. The 21st summit will be co-hosted by European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The Chinese-EU trade amounts to over a billion euros daily. Europe is China's largest trading partner and China is the second biggest market for European exports, after the United States.

Li, who is expected in Zagreb on Tuesday evening, will be accompanied by a 250-strong delegation. In addition, 300 Chinese business people are arriving for the economic forum in Dubrovnik. The event will be covered by about 70 Chinese reporters.

On 10 April, Li is due to meet with Prime Minister Plenković and other senior Croatian officials, including President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Parliament Speaker Gordan Jandrokovic. That evening, an exhibition on scholars of ancient China is to open in Zagreb's Klovićevi Dvori Gallery, ushering in a year of Chinese-Croatian cultural and tourism cooperation.

When it comes to the tourist trade, Croatia has recorded two-digit rises in arrivals of Chinese tourists. In the first three months of this year, the number of Chinese arrivals increased by 45% and they generated 59% more bed nights.

In 2016, 100,000 Chinese tourists visited Croatia, as many as 234,000 Chinese tourists were registered in 2018, while over 300,000 are expected this year.

On 23 April 2018, the Croatian road operator HC and the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) signed an agreement on the construction of Pelješac Bridge and access roads, worth 2.08 billion kuna (281 million euro) excluding VAT. The bridge, 2.4 kilometres long and 55 metres high, should be built in 36 months and its construction started last July.

Pelješac Bridge will connect the Croatian mainland and Pelješac peninsula to bypass the 15-kilometre-long stretch of the coast at Neum where Bosnia and Herzegovina has access to the Adriatic Sea. The bridge will ensure connectivity between the Dubrovnik area and the rest of Croatia.

The Chinese premier, accompanied by his host Plenković, is expected to visit the construction site of the bridge on Thursday, 11 April. Last year, Plenković said that the agreement on the bridge construction had opened a new page in Croatia-China relations.

The Dubrovnik summit will be held under the slogan "Building new bridges through openness, innovation and partnership". The first part of the two-day event will be a business forum.

The summit will adopt guidelines for the work of the 16+1 format in 2020.

In 2018, Croatian exports to China totalled 133 million euro while Chinese exports to Croatia exceeded 800 million euro.

More news about relations between Croatia and China can be found in the Politics section.