Wednesday 12 December 2018

Why the sky is the limit as trade surplus with China flies high

Brand new air links underline the opportunities for Irish business in the world's second biggest economy, writes Tanaiste Simon Coveney

Tanaiste Simon Coveney with China's foreign minister Wang Yi.
Tanaiste Simon Coveney with China's foreign minister Wang Yi.

Simon Coveney

A crab caught by a potter off the coast of Donegal tomorrow afternoon will be for sale in a Beijing or Shanghai supermarket by Wednesday. Irish milk is now the biggest ingredient in high quality baby formula sold across China. Irish beef has crossed all political hurdles and will be imported to China later this year.

It is a remarkable operation and supply chain that enables fresh Irish food to be sold in stores 10,000km away. As a nation, we are one of the most food-secure on the planet and produce 10 times what our population needs. However, it's the quality, as well as the quantity, of Irish produce that means the Chinese market is booming.

That farm-to-fork time will be slashed further from June when two direct flights begin operating between Dublin and Beijing as well as Dublin and Hong Kong. Hainan Airlines, the biggest private airline in China, takes flight with the 10-hour Beijing route on June 12. Cathay Pacific will pilot its inaugural 12-hour flight to Hong Kong on June 2.

Irish potential in China goes beyond food to the tourism, business and people opportunities of the first direct air links with the world's second biggest economy.

More than 100,000 airplane seats each year will bring multi-billion euro potential in trade and two-way tourism and our shared visa program with our neighbours in Britain means our islands can be sold as a joint cultural, heritage and adventure package.

When it comes to business, the sky is the limit. The Chinese foreign minister informed me in a meeting last week that Ireland's trade growth with China last year, at 37pc, was the highest they recorded. Trade between our two nations was €7bn four years ago. It more than doubled to €15bn last year - and for nine years in a row we have had a trade surplus in Ireland's favour. The Irish/Chinese potential is already more than a concept, it is in practice all over China.

Last week, as I visited Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing, I met students from Irish colleges working on their Chinese language skills, and Irish families who are making their careers and their homes in China.

Some of our biggest firms - like Kerry Group and CRH - are among the 300 Irish companies doing business in China. And major Chinese firms, such as Bank of China, China Power and Huawei, are making significant investments in Ireland.

At every stop on my travels here, from meetings with ministers to CEOs, I have been asked for reassurances on Brexit and Ireland remaining within the EU. In every speech and conversation I have emphasised our central place within the EU. Our embassy, consulates and state agencies constantly do the same.

Brexit is never far from my mind or my meetings, no matter where I am in the world - and this growing closeness with China is another reminder of the regret we have at any prospect of distance growing between Ireland and the UK on trade.

In recent weeks, the revulsion that we have felt at a foreign assassin using a military-grade nerve agent on British soil reinforces that the British are not only our friends, but in many cases our family.

Some of the handful of people in British politics and media who demand the European Union respects their sovereignty have at the same time briefed and misinformed media - and personally attacked the Taoiseach and I for robustly standing up for our sovereignty.

Some of the misinformation - for example, the attempt to dilute and downgrade the Irish protocol or rewrite December's backstop agreement - has even made it as far as the floor of the Dail.

I will be home to Cork for a few hours today before flying to Brussels for what is going to be a significant week, with a European Council decision on progressing Brexit negotiations due next Friday.

Brexit is just over one year away and tomorrow morning I will sit down with Michel Barnier and the Commission task force for a detailed briefing on their engagement with the British team on the Irish issues.

Clearly if we are to support moving the negotiation on this Friday, then we need to know the British side is engaging seriously on the draft withdrawal agreement - including the Irish protocol.

The EU and Ireland have always been resolute that there can be no backsliding on December's agreement - and so this week is a test to ensure that commitments are being fully upheld.

We remain firm that guarantees given on avoiding a hard border cannot be undermined.

This is about more than economics, this is about a hard-won peace and society in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The more I meet people across the island of Ireland and discuss Brexit, the more I am convinced that the peace achieved here goes to the core of who we are.

It isn't something to be jeopardised - and that is why the Government insisted on the December deal.

I have said it many times and I'll say it again: Ireland wants to work with Britain to find solutions that allow as close a relationship as possible - but the border issues must be resolved in a credible and comprehensive way.

Hopefully we can make progress on that this week.

Simon Coveney TD is Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

Sunday Independent

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