Ireland’s mild approach could help peace prevail as tensions rise between US/EU and China

Some advocates of the democracy-against-autocracy paradigm are gripped by the same level of moral certainty that drove the global war on terror

President Michael Higgins with Chinese president Xi Jinping on a visit to Beijing in December 2014. (Photograph: Greg Baker/Pool /Getty Images

The poetry, music and dance were Irish, including a bilingual recitation of China’s favourite Yeats poem, When You Are Old, but the performers were Chinese. Musicians from Minzu University, which specialises in ethnic minority studies, performed Irish music on traditional Chinese instruments before a spectacular display of Irish dancing.

We were in the auditorium of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries in Beijing to mark the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ireland and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There were speeches from the association’s vice-president Yuan Mindao and Ireland’s ambassador to China Ann Derwin, celebrating the strength of the bilateral relationship.

The news that Ireland was recognising the PRC as the sole legal government of China and establishing diplomatic relations was announced in a joint statement on June 22nd, 1979.

“The two governments have agreed to develop friendly relations and co-operation between the two countries on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit including the promotion of trade,” it said.


Ireland’s move came a few months after the United States established diplomatic relations with China, the culmination of almost a decade of diplomacy initiated by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai during Richard Nixon’s presidency. But Ireland had long pursued an independent policy towards China, voting as early as 1959 for China’s admission to the United Nations to be discussed.

“Whereas there are in the United Nations many countries whose form of government we would not like to see repeated here, countries of whose policies we strongly disapprove and the philosophy of whose rulers is abhorrent to our people, we feel nevertheless that, if the United Nations is to become what we would like it to be, namely, an effective shield for world peace, then clearly it must comprise countries of that character,” Seán Lemass told the Dáil on March 21st, 1961.

Three years later, after China became the world’s fifth nuclear power, Ireland backed a proposal at the United Nations that would have seen Beijing join the other four nuclear powers on the Security Council while Taiwan retained its seat in the GeneralAssembly. But addressing the General Assembly in December 1964, minister for external affairs Frank Aiken saidChina should not expect special treatment once it joined the UN.

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“It would be intolerable also, in my opinion, if Peking were admitted to a seat on the Security Council and were left under the illusion that it was not to be bound by the provisions of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or that its colonial occupation of the ancient nation of Tibet or its attack on Korea and India would be forgotten,” he said.

Much of Ireland’s foreign policy is expressed through its membership of the European Union and Brussels takes the lead on behalf of its member states on core elements of the relationship with China, including trade and human rights. Ireland’s approach to China is close to the centre of the European mainstream on most issues, although as an especially open economy it is more sceptical than most on the protectionist measures proposed under the banner of de-risking.

If Ireland were to become more of an outlier, it would be less interesting to Beijing as an interlocutor with an influential voice in the debates that shape the EU’s policy towards China. Beyond its position on individual policies, Ireland has been a consistent advocate of dialogue with countries such as China despite differences in political systems.

The mildness of Ireland’s approach draws criticism from those who believe the world faces what US president Joe Biden calls a battle between democracy and autocracy. In this world view, democracies led by the United States and the European Union must face down autocracies including China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

“Biden’s China policy rests on two conceptual pillars: great power relationships as battles between two ideological blocs, one democratic, the other autocratic; and globalisation as a zero-sum game in the struggle for hegemony,” writes Chinese political scientist Lanxin Xiang in the current issue of Survival, a journal published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Neither concept is original, but the fusion of the two could trigger a conflagration – in particular, by driving the US–China dispute over Taiwan towards military confrontation.”

Some advocates of the democracy-against-autocracy paradigm are gripped by the same level of moral certainty that drove the last great American foreign policy initiative, the global war on terror. As Aiken told the UN in 1961, “even the smallest countries can do something to help the great powers to reduce the tension” that makes them keep their nuclear arsenals at the ready.

“We can help, I suggest, by co-operating to avoid strife in all areas in a spirit of peace, conciliation and brotherhood, and by moderating our demands for action to redress injustices in cases where action is not yet in the realm of the possible without war,” he said.