Irish not solving Chinese puzzle

 

THE Chinese government has informed Ireland that its support of the Danish UN resolution condemning China's human rights record will adversely affect Irish Chinese relations.

This raises questions about what state those relations are in and if this episode will change them. The answers appear to be not very good and not very much.

In the current crisis, the Chinese have reserved their harshest treatment for Denmark and the Netherlands, which holds the EU Presidency, accusing them of anti Chinese behaviour and delaying their planned ministerial and trade visits.

As of yesterday, there was no indication whether China would put off the only Irish Chinese event on the horizon, a joint commission meeting in Beijing on May 20th under the chairmanship of the assistant secretary at the Department of Tourism and Trade, Mr John Walsh.

The joint commission, to review economic and scientific co operation, is mainly a relic from the days when China's trade was conducted mainly by the state. It does little to bring about company to company exchanges, essential today to developing Irish business potential. There bare no Irish ministerial visits at stake, though a top level Chinese visit to Ireland is planned.

While most European countries send important delegations to promote political co operation, trade and investment, the Irish have been conspicuous by their absence.

There has been no top level bilateral Irish Chinese ministerial meeting in Beijing since the visit of the Tanaiste, Mr Spring, in September 1994, or any ministerial meeting in China since Mr Taylor and Ms Breathnach, Ministers for Equality and Law Reform and Education, came in 1995 at the time of the Women's Conference.

Ireland's Asia policy appears to suffer from a mixture of indifference and scepticism at Civil Service level. The Government has identified human rights as the most important area for defining relations. Where other critics of China's human rights record are stepping up their contacts, there were no significant political, diplomatic, trade or business initiatives in the Department of Foreign Affairs' recent statement of international objectives.

OF all the European countries, Ireland has fewest people in place to lay the groundwork for trade and investment in China as it emerges as the major economic powerhouse of the 21st century.

Ireland lags far behind the Danes, the Belgians, the Finns and the Austrians in the scale of involvement. Belgium, for example, has four of 11 diplomats in Beijing devoted trade, economic and development matters, while Ireland has only three diplomats in the Chinese capital altogether.

The Irish Embassy also lists as first secretary (commercial) the Irish Trade Board representative in Hong Kong, Mr Gabriel McCarrick, who has to commute between the two cities. A Chinese national, Mr Li Bo, acts as Ireland's trade representative in Beijing but has no diplomatic status.

The Irish Trade Board has, therefore, only one executive and one support staff for the world's fastest growing market, where companies badly need help to break down barriers - this compares to 26 full time staff in Britain. Indeed, fewer resources will be devoted to China as Mr McCarrick will be reassigned later this year and replaced by a locally recruited person.

The Irish Trade Board decided in January to open an office in Shanghai by mid 1997, but this has been put back to September or October, said Mr Paddy Delaney, the Irish Trade Board director for the Asia Pacific region who is based in Singapore.

It would still go ahead, he said, adding: "We in the trade board need to make a major push; there is a big job for us to do there." However, there were problems finding the right person. "It may look as if we are going slowly but until I get the right man I'm not going to waste money."

He wants someone who knows the region and can speak the language. He is looking for an "ex-pat". The same principle will be applied to Hong Kong.

THE delay means Ireland is the only significant European country still with no one on the ground in Shanghai, the fast growing financial and commercial capital of mainland China.

There is so much foreign and Chinese investment going into the burgeoning city that other modest sized European economies like Austria Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland, as well as the larger EU nations, are represented at trade commissioner, commercial attache or consular level.

China is still a tiny market for Ireland, underlining both its relative unimportance at present and its huge potential. Exports to China in January October 1996 amounted to £24 million, just .01 per cent of the total, Mr Delaney said, and trade to China was fractional compared to the whole Asia Pacific region.

Ireland has got to decide about its national interests as regards China said a European financial analyst. "There are lots of opportunities like getting Asian airlines to set up their European operations in Ireland or linking into financial services.

"These are fast growing areas here but one really needs people in place and the full weight of state representation to explore the potential. If Ireland remains Euro centric it will cost you down the road. State agencies have to pioneer the ground."

The Irish Ambassador to China, Mr Joe Hayes, recently identified the Aer Rianta contract for Beijing airport's duty free shop, which opened in September, as a tangible sign of the potential in Sino Irish business relations. The company is seeking other contracts for a new terminal at Beijing and the new airport in Hong Kong.

There are about 60 other Inch companies involved in China, many following low risk by piggy backing on enterprises or identifying niche market in such areas as telecommunications and software.

The limited scale of Irish involvement in China, compared to the Danes who have big investments here, means that Chinese action against Ireland would be proportionately less damaging. Beijing is, in any event, probably more concerned with encouraging Ireland to build a more wide ranging and realistic relationship in the long run than in any short term punitive strike.