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Chinese Prime Minister Attends Summit in Croatia Amidst the EU’s Economic Skepticism

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang arrived in Croatia on Thursday, Apr. 11 ahead of the 16+1 Group’s annual summit. The 16+1 Group, initiated in 2012, is a symbol of China’s concentrated effort to increase its presence and influence in the Central and Eastern European region. The annual summit brings together business representatives and leaders from 16 countries in the region, this year under the slogan of, “Building Bridges of Openness, Innovation and Partnership.” Notably, this year’s summit coalesces around China’s newest and most deeply formed partnership with Croatia over the building of the long-awaited Peljesac Bridge, connecting mainland Croatia with the Dubrovnik region over the Adriatic Sea.

Croatian PM Andrej Plenkovic welcomes Chinese PM Li Keqiang at the 16+1 Summit held in Croatia. Photo.    Source: AP Photo/Darko Bandic

Croatian PM Andrej Plenkovic welcomes Chinese PM Li Keqiang at the 16+1 Summit held in Croatia. Photo. Source: AP Photo/Darko Bandic

The Peljesac Bridge is a highly significant development in Chinese presence in the region. The win over the open-bid contract by China’s state-owned company, the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), is seen as an extended move of China’s larger Belt and Road project. The Peljesac Bridge has deep resonance in Croatia as well, with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic stating that the bridge is the, “‘biggest and the most important’ infrastructure project in his country,” and a, “guarantee of future cooperation between Zagreb and Beijing.”

While seemingly innocuous developments, China’s heightened presence in Central and Eastern Europe strikes unease and hesitation on part of European leaders, who view China’s moves as undermining competition in the European continent. An EU meeting held with China just prior to the 16+1 Summit presents a larger EU perspective in stark contrast to the economic optimism of the 16+1 Group, with EU officials naming China as a “systemic rival” and a “strategic competitor” economically towards Europe. In his remarks at the 16+1 Summit, Prime Minister Keqiang aimed to quell European fears and skepticism by acclaiming that the Peljesac Bridge would be, “a rainbow on earth,” amongst China’s other ambitions in the Central and Eastern European region serving as a symbol of, “win-win cooperation,” between China and Europe.

Map depicting the planned route of the Peljesac Bridge in Croatia. Photo.    Source: China Daily via Agence France Presse

Map depicting the planned route of the Peljesac Bridge in Croatia. Photo. Source: China Daily via Agence France Presse

In the larger context of China’s recent involvement in Europe, the EU’s fears appear substantiated to a degree. As a move forward in its Belt and Road project aiming to connect Asian and European markets, China has opened credit lines worth nearly $10 billion to the 16+1 European countries. Moreover, Prime Minister Keqiang announced Greece as the 16+1 Group’s newest member and secured the Greek port of Piraeus as a Chinese-controlled entry point for trade into Europe. Further, amidst China’s deepening tech involvement in Europe through internet provision, and the recent developments surrounding the arrest of a director of China’s Huawei in Poland and the Czech Republic’s calls for limiting Huawei’s presence in critical tech infrastructure, more forged political and economic ties between the two regions appear troublesome.

While the construction of needed infrastructure like the Peljesac Bridge and other Chinese funded investments in Central and Eastern Europe are promising, they dually present the issue of increasingly leverageable Chinese influence and dependency in the region. The Peljesac Bridge is set to be complete in 2021, and with the ongoing nature of the Belt and Road Initiative, the results of Chinese presence remain to be fully seen in Europe.