Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hailed cooperation with the European Union and insisted it had run a fair tender for a disputed bridge project near Dubrovnik when he met Croatia's prime minister on Thursday.
The EU is financing 85 per cent of the cost of constructing the 2.4 km bridge, which is expected to open in 2021, which will link the southern Peljesac peninsula with the rest of the country. But the awarding of the tender last year to the China Road and Bridge Corporation for 2 billion kuna ($343 million) triggered a legal challenge by one of the losing parties, Austrian firm Strabag.
It accused the Chinese firm of charging a price lower than the value of the project, which is part of China's global Belt and Road Initiative for infrastucture and trade. A Croatian court dismissed the complaint.
Li and Croatia's Andrej Plenkovic visited the site ahead of the opening ceremony for an annual meeting of 16 central European countries with China due to be held in Dubrovnik. "The bridge is a pilot project not only for 16 plus 1 initiative cooperation but also for our cooperation with the EU," Li said through a translator.
"This is the job that we got in a tender in a fair competition." Signs reading "We build better lives" in Chinese and Croatian greeted the pair.
Chinese companies have been active on various infrastructure projects including building roads and bridges in the Balkans, but the Peljesac bridge is the first of its kind in the EU bloc, which Croatia joined in 2013. "The bridge is a token of future cooperation between China and Croatia," Plenkovic said.
The construction of the bridge has sparked tensions between Croatia and neighbouring Bosnia, part of which says the bridge would be too low and would obstruct sea access to Bosnia's only coastal town of Neum, ruining any chance of building a port there.
(With inputs from agencies.)