Building economic links with Chinese is a priority
TODAY, Xi Jinping, Vice President of China, will begin a three-day visit to Ireland. This will be the second of three countries on his itinerary: he is currently in the United States and, when he leaves Ireland on Monday evening, he will travel to Turkey.
Xi Jinping is, by any standards, an extremely important Chinese politician and is widely expected to become the next president of China.
I believe that it is highly significant that he has chosen Ireland as one of the three countries that he is visiting on this occasion.
This is not Xi Jinping's first visit here. He visited in 2003 when he was the Party Secretary of Zhejiang province and I believe that he formed a very good impression of our country during that visit.
He also met with former President Mary McAleese when she visited Beijing in 2010.
Vice President Jinping's visit this weekend is the latest in a series of visits by distinguished high-level Chinese delegations to Ireland in recent times.
The increased volume of such visits and the now regular trade and education missions in both directions are already strengthening our bilateral relationship.
This latest and very welcome visit will serve to further strengthen and develop the strong ties that exist between Ireland and China and our peoples.
Developing our trade and economic links with China is a priority for the Government.
China is now the world's second-largest economy and growing at a rapid pace. With a population of 1.3 billion, it represents an enormous opportunity for Irish exporters.
Equally, China has embarked on a significant programme of overseas investment and again this represents an opportunity for Ireland.
Finally, just as companies in other countries have discovered, Ireland has tremendous advantages to offer to Chinese companies that might wish to serve European markets.
Since our diplomatic and trade relations opened over 30 years ago, trade between our two countries has grown and China is now our eighth-largest merchandise trading partner.
The Chinese market has been a strong performer in the Government's strategy to expand and diversify our exports. Ireland's exports to China have expanded very significantly in recent years, to the extent that Ireland now has a trade surplus with China. Irish exports to China were more than €3.4bn in 2010, over half of which were in services exports.
In addition, the number of Irish companies that have established themselves in China has grown steadily.
I am convinced that these well-established footholds will enable us to grow and develop our trade, economic and cultural links considerably in the months and years ahead.
More Irish businesses trading in China will inevitably lead to a greater cultural understanding between our nations.
Ireland has many attractions for China. Our membership of the European Union offers access to that market of half-a-billion consumers. Our status as the only English-speaking member of the euro is another advantage.
Ireland has a reputation for technology-led and export-focused companies and there are a number of broad sectors in which there are clear opportunities for Irish companies to develop and expand their sales in China.
There are many reasons why I am optimistic about the potential for a major improvement in our economic relations. The existing links have been built up, slowly and carefully, over a number of years.
Detailed planning, engagement and execution by many of our leading companies -- ably supported by state agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Bord Bia -- have demonstrated our determination and our capacity to deliver.
But more than that, I believe that there are other factors that help to oil the wheels of progress.
It is not just export and import statistics that reflect the progress achieved. High-quality educational links -- including language training and third-level research partnerships, tourism development, cultural exchanges and better political engagement -- all contribute to building a better and mutually beneficial relationship between our peoples.
WE have already welcomed to our shores many Chinese who have chosen to work and live here in recent years. Similarly, China has welcomed many of our sons and daughters and even boasts a number of active GAA clubs.
We may differ in size and be on opposite sides of the globe. Nevertheless, we have factors in common that provide the basis for engagement, for curiosity, for mutual respect and trust. We share among our peoples a love of art and culture and a deep sense of history.
I have detected amongst the many Chinese people that I have met a great appreciation of many things Irish. Not just in the area of the arts, but in our creativity, our commitment to education, our pragmatism and our ability to get things done.
I am convinced that we can show to China that Ireland can be a partner in Europe. I believe, too, that, in contrast to the size and might of China, our small size, far from being a disadvantage, can be a virtue, with our nimble and pragmatic approach being a real asset as we seek to deepen our partnership.
I look forward to meeting Vice President Xi Jinping this weekend as a further step on this journey together. Over the coming months, a number of ministers will visit China to continue the important contacts with their counterparts.
I also hope that I, too, will visit China in the not-too-distant future and meet with other political and business leaders, along with the Chinese people.