China wants pragmatic Brexit negotiations, says Coveney

Minister for Foreign Affairs meets counterpart during St Patrick’s Day trip to Beijing

China's foreign minister Wang Yi has encouraged "sensible and pragmatic negotiations" between the EU and Britain over Brexit, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs met his counterpart on Thursday during his St Patrick's Day trip to Beijing.

“Basically what he said on Brexit was, ‘You need to work this out between the EU and the UK, this is an important relationship’.

“I said to him that we would be negotiating on the basis of trying to create the closest possible relationship in the future. Certainly he wasn’t disagreeing with that perspective,” said Mr Coveney.


China is playing a cautious, wait-and-see game on Brexit. During a visit by UK prime minister Theresa May last month, Beijing appeared to back a favourable post-Brexit trade deal, without going into detail, but China's relationship with the EU is paramount.

Wide-ranging talks

Mr Coveney and Mr Wang held wide-ranging talks on many issues, including human rights, North Korea, the UN Security Council and China's Belt and Road Initiative. The meeting went on for nearly three hours, compared to a scheduled hour and a half.

Looking more broadly at the relationship with China, Mr Coveney said years of political bridge-building was now beginning to translate into strong ties. “This trading relationship and improved business relationship hasn’t happened by accident, you have to work on them, but it’s bearing fruit now,” he said.

“Ten years ago none of this was happening. People weren’t really talking about China with any perspective or knowledge. Now we have a €16 billion trade relationship,” said Mr Coveney.

An issue that has long complicated relations between EU countries and China is Beijing’s human rights record, with many European leaders critical of China’s muzzling of press freedom, jailing of human rights activists and heavy programme of censorship.

Awkward issues

The situation has worsened since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, and last weekend China's annual parliament, the National People's Congress, removed term limits on the presidency, clearing a path for Mr Xi to rule indefinitely. Mr Coveney said Ireland had a responsibility to raise human rights with China but that it had to be carried out in a particular way.

“From my experience, one you’ve built a relationship that is built on trust, then you can raise some awkward issues and people are not offended. If you use megaphone diplomacy and start issuing press releases about something and someone that you don’t know very much about, then they take offence, then both sides take offence, it becomes a stand-off type relationship,” he said.

While NGOs can raise the profile of cases, politicians needed to try and solve problems by building personal relationships.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing