China signed a huge deal Wednesday to finance a high-speed bullet train between Budapest and Belgrade, a key link in Beijing's expanding network for getting its goods to European markets.
"This will put in place a corridor between China and Europe," Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang told reporters after signing the deal in Belgrade, estimated by local media to be worth 1.5 billion euros ($1.9 billion).
"Development of this railway line will contribute to both Hungary and Serbia," he added.
"It will not only deepen cooperation between China and Central Eastern European countries but also will mean improving China-European relations," Li told reporters, insisting that "the railway will be constructed by European standards."
The details of the deal were not disclosed, but after the bilateral meeting with Li, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said Hungary, Macedonia and Serbia would make "a joint proposal for the Chinese government by January 20 on models of financing the railway that would not necessarily be the same for each country."
Li said he was confident the project -- whose cost has not been officially confirmed -- would be completed within the next two years.
The signing was the centrepiece of a summit in Belgrade with 16 central and eastern European leaders designed to cement Beijing's plans for new transport links to funnel exports into Europe.
China 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 the continent.
"The project is expanded as Macedonia and Greece have joined it. Greek railways and a port will take part in this project to build together a rapid land and maritime route between Europe and China," Li said.
Before signing the agreement Li met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as well as his counterparts from Macedonia and Serbia, Nikola Gruevski and Aleksandar Vucic, to discuss details of the project.
Macedonia, which lies on the path of the north-south corridor linking Hungary with Greece through Serbia, plans to join the project later.
Infrastructure and transport were top of the agenda at the two-day talks, which also discussed wider Chinese trade and investment in the region.
Orban hailed the bullet train deal and said "it shows that China and Europe have found the possibility to cooperate to their mutual benefit in decades to come."
The Serbian prime minister pledged to "employ the utmost efforts and energy to see it completed".
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 has expanded fivefold since 2003.
Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said it could exceed $60 billion this year, up $4.9 billion on 2013.