In April, Croatia received Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on his official visit, which was the first visit by a Chinese premier to the country, during which both sides exchanged views in deepening cooperation.

As Croatia plays an increasingly important role under the China-Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) cooperation, which is synergising the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), both sides have seen growing possibilities for further cooperation.

The former foreign policy adviser of the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Dario Mihelin (Mihelin), has taken over his new post as the Croatian Ambassador to China in 2019. The Global Times (GT) sat with him to discuss his outlook on stronger relations between China and Croatia.

Reporter: Croatia has been an important hub under the framework of the BRI, through which both sides have seen increasing interactions. How would you see the possibilities for deepening the bilateral ties under the BRI?

Mihelin: We are pleased that our delegation, led by our Deputy Prime Minister Damir Krsticevic, attended the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. It would be a great step forward following Premier Li Keqiang’s recent visit to Dubrovnik, Croatia and after hosting the 16+1, which transformed itself into the 17+1 cooperation summit with the inclusion of Greece.

We really see this as a continuation of our bilateral cooperation on all fronts and we see possibilities to strengthen our relations with China. In the past month or so, we really have had strong interactions.

Croatia joined the BRI since the very start. We signed the Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation under the BRI already during the first BRI forum in 2017. At that time, I was here as the presidential envoy in my previous capacity serving as our president’s foreign policy adviser. The BRI forum really attracts representatives from governments worldwide.

Croatia is a country that connects the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road that has been explored several centuries ago by a person who is well-known in China – Marco Polo.

But what is not widely known, as Premier Li mentioned during his visit to Croatia, is that we all have to work more on acquainting our Chinese friends with the fact that Marco Polo come from the Croatian island and city of Korcula, which at that time in the 14th century, belonged to the Venice Republic, as many other cities in the east of Adriatic did.

But those cities and islands are in present-day Croatia and the house of the Polo’s family still stands in Korcula where many Chinese tourists visit. As far as Croatia is concerned, we are all with Marco Polo to continue this kind of engagement along the BRI.

Reporter: The 16+1 cooperation serves as an important platform for synergising the BRI and the EU Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia. What are the sectors that you see as necessary to be included in the cooperation in the future?

Mihelin: I participated in the negotiations on the final document coming from the 16+1 and 17+1 cooperation summits in Dubrovnik. When you go through that documents and see all the areas that cooperation has been established, like trade, connectivity, culture, health and agriculture as well as some future plans, I would say that there is already much cooperation in areas such as smart cities, waste management, sports cooperation, financing, infrastructure, health, and people-to-people exchanges.

We are particularly proud that over the past few years, with the government of Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and with the strong support of the President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, we have raised our profile within the 16+1 and 17+1 cooperation. Last year, Croatia hosted a meeting for the ministers of tourism within the 16+1 cooperation in Dubrovnik where the Marco Polo Tourism Award was established.

This year, we hosted the summit and this was truly a historic summit as this was the first summit where cooperation was expanded to include Greece and we provided our large support for the expansion of the 16+1 to the 17+1 cooperation. Next year, Croatia will host the next meeting of the ministers of transportation within the 17+1.

Reporter: Last year, 16+1 trade rose by 21 percent to $82.2 billion, which was a record high. Meanwhile, the CEEC are becoming increasingly popular tourist destinations for Chinese people. As an important country in the region, how does Croatia pull the trigger behind this growth?

Mihelin: Croatia welcomes Chinese investment and friends coming in great numbers. Of course, Croatia is an EU member state and has a clear set of rules for foreign investment, but it is a level-playing field. The best example is the contract for building Peljesac Bridge, which connects the southernmost Dubrovnik-Neretva County to the rest of the mainland. The bidding for this construction project had gone through a transparent process in accordance with public procurement procedures of Croatia and EU standards and the Chinese consortium won the bid.

The Chinese tourists to Croatia are picking up and this is why the issue of a direct flight from China, either to Dubrovnik, the world-renowned city for the filming of Game of Thrones and the host city of 17+1, or to Zagreb, the vibrating capital city that has won the award for best Christmas market in Europe for three consecutive years, is such a high profile one. There is really a lot of potential if there is a direct flight to Croatia.

Meanwhile, the number of Chinese tourists has increased exponentially last year, jumping from 165,000 to 275,000, and we see the same trend this year. From January to April, we have seen a 95 percent increase in the number of visa applications here at the embassy. Of course, for Chinese tourists, it would be easier to visit Croatia once we begin issuing Schengen visas that allow you to travel to other EU member states, and at the moment, we are finalising our preparations to join the Schengen visa program.

Reporter: China and Croatia have connections in varied sectors. But like in any other relations, there need to be areas of focus. What would be your main priorities as the Croatian Ambassador to China during your tenure?

Mihelin: What we will definitely focus on is to have more trade and economic exchanges, infrastructure and transportation cooperation, tourism, culture, sports and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries as well as the cooperation between our cities and provinces. We are doing everything here at the embassy to further connect the two countries and the people. Our bonds are very strong. Croatians remember really well about the Chinese support in the period when we were forging our independence and expect this friendship to go on continuously.

Reporter: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. As the Croatian Ambassador to China, how do you see China’s changes and its role in the international spectrum?

Mihelin: This country has really transformed itself in the past 70 years. If you look at all the figures about people’s income and the country’s advancement, China is really one of the strongest developers of technology for the future of humankind. With a much more highlighted China’s global role, its position in the world’s multilateral system is even more important in this regard as being one of the most important partners for the EU.

In general, there are so many reasons to participate in the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. For many countries, it is already their 70th diplomatic relations with China. For Croatia, it is the 27th anniversary of diplomatic relations as an independent country.

But I would say that in the past 27 years, we have really forged strong partnership and friendship and we are happy with all of the advancement that the country has made.

Coming here to serve as the Croatian Ambassador to China this year, which as Premier Li said, is the “diamond period” in our relations, is a great honour for me. Together with my team at the embassy, I will do my best to further contribute to that.