With China in our hands, is it time to beef up embassy staffing?

Cantillon: The hard work behind beef deal needs to be backed up by boots on the ground

The recent success in securing approval for Irish beef imports into China was accomplished by hard work and astute negotiation by Ireland's embassy in Beijing and the Department of Agriculture.

Competition for Chinese business is intense among European nations, and Ireland’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider the differences in staffing levels compared to some of our EU colleagues.

With direct flights looming next month between Dublin and both Beijing and Hong Kong, it will be interesting to see if embassy staffing is beefed up – excuse the pun – to match the anticipated growth in trade.

Currently Ireland has one attaché from the ministry of agriculture based in Beijing, Colm Ó Cribín, plus senior diplomats responsible for finance, trade and investment, and education.


The IDA has really boosted its presence in mainland China in recent years.

Asia Pacific chief John Conlon is based in Shanghai along with two other representatives, and there are IDA representatives in Beijing and Shenzhen.

Bord Bia has hired Kieran Fitzgerald, who has great experience in China, while Tourism Ireland has hired another old China hand in energetic advocate James Kenny.

Enterprise Ireland has five staffers at its office in Beijing and three in Shanghai, and EI's Asia Pacific chief Tom Cusack is based in Shanghai.

If we compare ourselves to Denmark, with a population of 5.73 million, which is interested in similar areas such as agri-tech and food, you can still see a gap in terms of resourcing.

The Danes’ trade council has specialised teams dealing with food, design, health, service and environmental services, with offices at Denmark’s consular offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing. Denmark also has offices in Taipei.

The food team alone has 13 representatives, focused on agricultural commodities, beverages, fishery, food sector, and raw fur skin, with seven people in Beijing, three in Shanghai, two in Guangzhou and one in Chongqing.

Denmark has a specialist design team plus a service team with five members.

It also has an Invest in Denmark service similar to the IDA and an accelerator in Shanghai called Innovation Centre Denmark which allows Danish firms to “tap into China’s innovation ecosystem, the start-ups, incubators, VCs, public and private entities”.

In a speech at The Irish Times business awards 2018 last week Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government was committed to putting more boots on the ground overseas in embassies. Perhaps next week's visit by Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed signals the start of more resources to compete for Chinese business.