The recent visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s to Ireland was a positive development.
Xi’s three-day stopover in Ireland resulted in what has been described as a number of ‘door-opening’ agreements.
Xi, pronounced ‘shee’, is expected to take over from ruling president Hu Jintao by 2013, so Ireland can be pleased that it has put in some preliminary footwork with the future leader of a global powerhouse.
Bilateral trade between the two geographically distant nations was worth an estimated €4.2bn euros in 2010.
That is expected to grow.
While Ireland has plenty of friends in the West, it needs strengthened relations with China and the wider Asia-Pacific, including Australia.
Our traditional, established friends in the international market – Britain, the European Union and the United States – have, like Ireland, suffered economic bruising since 2008.
The Pacific rim region is blossoming. An emerging middle-class, a growing tech sector, strong manufacturing output and developing tourism sectors are attracting investors.
The unstoppable growth of China seems even more impressive when held up alongside stagnation in much of the West.
The Economist Intelligence Unit has forecast China’s economic expansion will hover around an average of 8.1 per cent a year until 2016. The United States, on the other hand, will see its growth linger at two per cent over the same period.
The much-referenced political question of whether Ireland should align itself with Boston or Berlin needs now to include a third option of Beijing – albeit, solely in economic terms.
We cannot overlook the country’s poor human rights record, its policies around childbirth and – in very real terms – the daily suppression of its people’s hopes and dreams.
Many of China’s political machinations remain opaque to the outside world. The Asian giant has come around to a form of capitalism, for its own ends. Democracy remains over the hill.
Indeed, media was given little opportunity to question Xi on human rights during his visit to Ireland – although The Irish Times, the only Irish media outlet to have a correspondent in Beijing, was granted a rare interview.
We can only hope that the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach privately expressed their concerns about human rights to the 150-strong Chinese delegation.
It would be disappointing to see Ireland enter a tacit arrangement to be silent on the matter, in return for opened doors in China. Obsequiousness has served Ireland poorly in the bailout era.
That aside, the coalition government can take heart from the fact that Xi and his delegates chose Ireland as the sole EU country to visit.
Despite the current challenges, the memory of how Ireland was momentarily the EU’s golden child has endured far afield.
China, however big, is keen to learn the lessons of a country that experienced rapid economic growth and the harsh aftermath of a relentless recession.
“We welcome the opportunities, which our growing relationship with China presents. We welcome the growing people to people links in trade, education and tourism,” the Taoiseach told Xi at Dublin Castle.
“Our enterprises and institutions are building long term sustainable relationships to underpin those links. Ireland and China have much to offer each other in food and agriculture, in high technology research and in investment.
“We should make every effort to realise that potential,” he added.
There is cause to be cautiously optimistic.