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Opinion: The deepening relationship between Ireland and China

Even by the standards of the last four decades, China is now in a period of great change – and its continuing rise offers new opportunities for Ireland.

Eoin McDonnell

CHINA’S FIFTH MOST-POWERFUL man is in Ireland. The visit of Liu Yunshan, a senior member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the most central body within the Communist Party of China, is a concrete sign of a deepening relationship between Ireland and the country whose economy is the world’s second biggest. The rise of China will significantly shape the way that Irish business leaders, politicians and diplomats engage with the world.

For a start, the arrival of Liu suggests that the optimism surrounding the visit of then Vice-President Xi Jinping (now China’s premiere) to Ireland in February 2012 was justified. China sees Ireland as a key partner in Europe, and wants to develop the relationship between our two nations. Each year since 2010, a top-ranking Chinese official has visited Ireland, and Liu is following in the footsteps not only of now-President Xi, but of a Vice-Premier, a Mayor of Beijing, and of his own predecessor on the PSC.

In addition, since 2011 nearly 30 Chinese ministers or vice-ministers have visited Ireland, and Liu himself is accompanied by four ministers in a delegation of 51 officials. Clearly, the CPC (Communist Party of China) leadership considers a strengthening of the ties between the two nations to be of benefit for China.

The growth of the Ireland-China relationship

So what does the CPC hope to achieve through the growth of the Ireland-China relationship? Even by the standards of the last four decades, China is now in a period of great change. The cornerstone of President Xi’s leadership has been his policy of the “Chinese Dream”, a catch-all slogan with such mass appeal that it would not be out of place on an Irish election leaflet.

With the Chinese Dream, President Xi is essentially offering his citizens the opportunity to have a “moderately prosperous society”, combining a growing economy with a genuine improvement in the quality of life. To achieve this, the CPC will have to develop the economic potential of so-called Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, such as Hefei or Datong, beyond the coastal metropolises which have until now been the engine of growth, like Shanghai or Shenzhen. Many of these targeted cities lie in predominantly agricultural provinces, and to truly contribute to China’s economy they will have to leapfrog industrialisation, and transform directly into modern, services-led economies.

There are very few economies that have achieved this transition, with many Chinese analysts believing Ireland is a successful example. This is one of the reasons why now-President Xi Jinping included the Shannon Free Zone on his itinerary during his February 2012 visit.

Attracting clients from China’s financial sector

Such enthusiasm for Ireland among policymakers in Beijing is being encouraged by an ever-deepening engagement with China by the Irish state. In February 2014, before returning home, the previous Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Ireland, Luo Linquan, noted that nearly two-thirds of the Irish Cabinet had visited China during his time in Dublin. The Department of Foreign Affairs plans to open a full Consulate-General in Hong Kong in the autumn. The IDA recently opened a new office in Beijing which has a special focus on attracting clients from China’s financial sector to Ireland, and the agency plans to increase the workforce at its Shanghai office. With the two-way trade between the nations rising by 13.2% in 2013 to more than €4.9 billion, the economic elements of the Ireland-China bilateral relationship are clear.

But the continuing rise of China also offers new opportunities for Ireland on the international stage, through the medium of multilateral organisations, that are not always recognised, but if pursued would develop the relationship between the two nations yet further. The most obvious example of this is in relation to China’s ties with the European Union. China and the EU are important economic partners, with bilateral trade in goods and services reaching €478 billion in 2013. But this relationship is set to grow further and Ireland has a number of natural advantages for positioning itself as China’s partner of choice within the EU.

Learning English

As an English-speaking nation in the Eurozone, Ireland could be a natural partner for China, where an estimated 300 million people are learning English. Our history of being on the receiving end of imperialism means our relationship with China is free of historical baggage. The key economic strengths of our economy lie in sectors, such as agrifood and digital, where China is trying to increase it capabilities and looking for partners who are unhindered by geostrategic concerns.

Ireland’s potential as a partner for China in the realm of multilateral organisations stretches beyond the EU. Many people do not realise that China is a major contributor of troops to the United Nations, and indeed is providing more troops now than the other four permanent members of the Security Council combined. This engagement with the UN is set to increase, but the Chinese are still adapting to the demands of UN peacekeeping. This is an area where Ireland has obvious expertise, and where we can assist China to become a responsible global security actor.

The name of Liu Yunshan may not have meant much to most Irish people before this weekend. But his arrival is concrete proof that the efforts being made by Irish diplomats, business and political leaders are bearing fruit, and that Ireland is already proving effective at navigating the challenges and opportunities of the Pacific century.

Eoin McDonnell, Lead China Researcher, Institute of International and European Affairs.

Read: New visa to let Chinese and Indian tourists travel freely between Ireland and UK

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Eoin McDonnell

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