[BELGRADE] Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang will meet 16 central and eastern European leaders Tuesday in a summit to cement Beijing's plans for a new transport network to funnel exports into Europe.
The two-day meeting in Belgrade will gather prime ministers from 16 central and eastern European countries, with infrastructure and transport top of the agenda.
Beijing hopes to turn the Greek port of Piraeus - where the Chinese shipping giant Cosco has a 35-year concession to hugely expand its two container terminals - into a new hub for trade with Europe.
Despite being hit hard by the economic crisis, Greece still has the world's largest merchant marine fleet, with China with one of its key customers.
Mr Li discussed huge investment in Greece's crumbling railways during a visit to Athens in August, including a high-speed rail project.
"We will propose construction of a rapid land and maritime route based on the Budapest-Belgrade railroad and the Greek port of Piraeus to improve regional connectivity," Mr Li told Serbian media ahead of the summit in Belgrade.
The signing of a deal for a high-speed bullet train link between Budapest and Belgrade, to be built by 2017, with Mr Li's Hungarian and Serbian counterparts, Viktor Orban and Aleksandar Vucic, is the centrepiece of the gathering.
"We will set a mid-term agenda to define our future cooperation and present financial measures that will facilitate it," Mr Li said ahead of the summit, the third of its kind.
Beijing said it was interested in investing in energy, agriculture and industry as well as infrastructure projects in the 16 countries.
Trade between China and the region, which has expanded five-fold since 2003, will be also on the agenda.
Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said trade with the region could exceed US$60 billion this year, up US$4.9 billion on last year.
However, Chinese investment remained below targets set during two previous summits - in Warsaw in 2012, when China pledged loans of 10 billion euros, and last year in Bucharest.
China has invested billions of euros in Hungary and Serbia, but much less so in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic states.
However, some countries including Poland, hope to increase exports to China, in particularly of food, after Russia slapped a ban on food imports in retaliation for European Union sanctions over Moscow's role in the Ukrainian conflict.
"We hope to sell a lot of Polish food to China because we have problems with Russia right now and Russia was rather a huge market for Polish fruit, vegetables and meat," Professor Bogdan Goralczyk of the Central & Eastern Europe Development Institute (CEED) said.