A calling card to China

Tue, Feb 21, 2012, 00:00

NOW THAT Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping has completed a well-publicised and successful visit, the purposes behind his itinerary: that of deepening bilateral relations, strengthening commercial links and emphasising the importance of Ireland both as a stable member of the EU and as a trading gateway should receive concentrated attention.

Chinese governments take a long-term view and we should do likewise.

Reassuring signals exist in that regard. Four ministerial visits are already planned involving Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney along with a variety of business delegations. Former president Mary McAleese went there in 2003 and 2010; former taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2008. Building political bridges are necessary requirements if jobs and new enterprises are to be created in both countries.

In a period dominated by “sentiment” within the financial markets, the benefits offered by Mr Xi’s visit are significant. As the man likely to become China’s new leader, it offers reassurance to foreign investors about Ireland’s economic recovery and future growth. It also places those developments within the context of greater EU integration and currency stability. For China, this reflects the importance of the EU as the world’s largest trading economy and its own chief trading partner. By choosing to visit a peripheral state as a 27-year-old trade and economic agreement is being reviewed, the importance of smaller countries and the role of the EU Commission is quietly underlined.

Strategic changes in China involving rapid urbanisation and increased consumption in terms of food, education, healthcare, technology and other services, offers Ireland a broad range of opportunities as a trading partner. A growing recognition that ecologically damaging, low-cost manufacturing can no longer be sustained is driving change. The template for industrial development followed here and our transition from a rural society to a high-tech, open economy is therefore of considerable interest to Chinese planners. So is the manner in which Ireland has provided US companies and international investors with an easily accessible trading gateway to Europe.

A considerable gap exists between recognising trading opportunities and exploiting them, particularly with different cultures and business models involved. Building trust and relationships, at political and commercial levels, are primary requirements that may prove to be difficult in the context of human rights violations.

Mr Xi specifically identified biotechnology, communications technology and agriculture as priority areas in scaling up two-way trade and investment. He expected Ireland to play a greater role in promoting China/EU relations. The Taoiseach responded by offering a deeper inter-government relationship and a more active commercial one, involving goods, services and inward investment. The success of the visit provided an important symbolic outcome. From there, shared commercial interests and hard work can do the rest.