China's Belt & Road ambitions in southern Europe have taken a step forward, with the commercial close of the Banja Luka to Prijedor motorway in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
China Shandong International Economic and Technical Cooperation Corp won the bidding for a thirty-year toll road early in 2018. Completion on the 297 million euro project is expected in 2023.
The concession was signed with Republika Srpska, which is an autonomous region in the north west of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Funding will be secured by the Chinese company, in cooperation with Autoputevi RS, Republika Srpska's highways directorate.
Chinese involvement in transport infrastructure in the European Union (EU) accession countries of southern Europe has become a point of friction with Brussels.
The EU has earmarked funding for road projects, hoping to keep China out. But the accession countries remain sceptical that they will ever actually be allowed to join the EU, and are hedging their bets by building close relations with China.
The so-called candidate countries are Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Bosnia and Herzogovina is formally listed as a potential candidate, aiming to join the EU in the future, but has not yet been granted candidate country status.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but the EU has left it to individual member states whether to recognise it. A Stabilization and Association Agreement between EU and Kosovo was initiated in July 2014, and entered into force in April 2016. China does not recognize Kosovo.
China itself has plans to extend transport routes through central Asia and into Europe, linking up road and rail projects with ports such as Pireaus in Greece and the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas.
Bosnia and Herzogovina is surrounded by Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and has only one access point to the Adriatic Sea at Neum.
Banja Luka-Prijedor is the first phase of the motorway, and Shandong has signed up to complete a second phase which will run through to Novi Grad on the border with Croatia, bringing the total length of the motorway to 80 kilometres.
The Banja Luka-Prijedor motorway will have two lanes in both directions, a traffic island, and an emergency lane. As designed, the highway section will consist of seven tunnels and 35 bridges, three interchanges, and the infrastructure for a closed toll payment system as well as a system for traffic safety management and control. This is the first highway concession project in the Republic of Srpska. China Shandong was advised by Serbian law firm Jankovic Popovic Mitic.