Chinese Premier Li Keqiang discussed boosting business with leaders from eastern and central Europe in Croatia on Friday, pledging that his country was ready to open up its economy and would respect European Union standards.
The coastal city of Dubrovnik hosted the eighth annual “16+1” cooperation, which became “17+1” as Greece joined the economic platform for Beijing’s investments in 12 European Union states and five Western Balkan countries.
The grouping has been eyed cautiously in western European capitals as an attempt to “divide and rule” the bloc, a goal that Li has repeatedly denied.
“We intend to cooperate and respect European standards,” Li said at the summit’s opening in Dubrovnik.
“We all need to increase trade and connect our economies.”
Eastern Europe is a core component of Beijing’s vast “Belt and Road” project, valued at up to $1 trillion and aimed at constructing land and sea links to allow Chinese exports to flow westward.
China has previously announced a $10 billion credit line and $3 billion investment fund for the region.
So far its record on follow-through is mixed, with some major construction projects under way while other promised investments have been delayed or scrapped.
For instance, building on one of 16+1’s flag-ship projects — a railway from Belgrade to Budapest — has just started in Serbia but is held up by snags in Hungary, ultimately making scant progress five years after it was announced.
– EU hails ‘breakthrough’ –
This year’s summit comes just three days after a top EU-China meeting, attended by Li, held as Brussels demands more balanced economic ties with a country it recently labelled as a “systemic rival”.
In Brussels on Tuesday the Asian giant pledged to push further to open its economy and deepen ties with the bloc.
EU Council president Donald Tusk hailed Beijing’s new commitments as a “breakthrough” with both sides committed to globalisation and pursuing international rules.
Brussels and Beijing in a document called for “broader and more facilitated, non-discriminatory market access,” in wording the Europeans saw as a Chinese concession.”
Li said Friday’s event was an “additional step” after the Brussels meeting and a “useful complement to cooperation between the EU and China”.
The EU is increasingly unhappy that markets in Europe are wide open to Chinese companies, while the equivalent is not the case in China.
While the EU’s 15-trillion-euro ($16.9 trillion) market gives it significant economic clout, the bloc struggles to maintain unity among its 28 members on issues of foreign policy, allowing China to pursue one-on-one deals with individual countries.
Some EU powers, such as France and Germany, are growing increasingly concerned with China’s Belt and Road ambitions, especially after populist-led Italy recently became the first G7 member to join the scheme.
– ‘Deepen relationship with EU’ –
In 2018, China was the second largest destination for European exports.
The Chinese trade balance is largely in surplus with the bloc at 184 billion euros, according to Brussels figures.
During the first visit of a Chinese premier to Croatia, Li on Thursday visited the site where a Chinese firm started construction on a 280-million-euro bridge on the Adriatic coast.
It is the first significant Chinese project in Croatia and funded by the EU.
“Projects like the Peljesac bridge can inspire future cooperation” between EU and China, Li said Friday.
He hailed Greece becoming a full-fledged member of the now “17+1” grouping.
“With Greece joining in and all the central and eastern European countries… we will deepen China’s relationship with the EU,” Li told reporters after the summit.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who attended Friday’s event, welcomed future cooperation within the initiative “in full respect of EU rules and procedures”.
About 1,000 businessmen including some 400 Chinese participated at a business forum held alongside the summit in Dubrovnik.