Subscriber OnlyAsia-Pacific

Tánaiste speaks fondly of Cork to Chinese audience while outlining Ireland’s stance on Ukraine and Gaza

Shanghai Letter: Micheál Martin emphasises complexity of global supply chains and impossibility of decoupling economies of China, Europe and the US

Micheál Martin was coming to the end of a question-and-answer session at a business school in Shanghai when he heard the deep, rich and unmistakable tones of west Cork. Pat McCarthy from Ardfield near Clonakilty had travelled with his wife and son from their home in Dongbei in the northeast of China.

“We made it through blizzards because there’s snow up there,” he said.

The Tánaiste answered McCarthy’s question about how to ensure that investment reaches underdeveloped regions like Dongbei before quizzing him about where exactly he was from in west Cork.

“Are you near Castlehaven, are you? Clonakilty, is it? Ardfield? Ardfield is beautiful,” he said, perhaps to the bafflement of the assembled MBAs of the China Europe International Business School.


“I holidayed in Ardfield for many years. There’s a beautiful beach there called Red Strand, best swim in Ireland. There you are now.”

Like most Cork people, Martin mentions the place as often as he can and so it was in China where he reminded Shanghai that they were twinned cities and told students in Beijing about the Blarney Stone. After guests at a business dinner in the Chinese capital watched a promotional video about Ireland that included some Gaelic games, he offered an explanatory note.

“The red jerseys that were on that video come from my county, which is the best county in Ireland for sport and more generally,” he said.

Martin’s visit to China came amid a thaw in relations between Beijing and Washington ahead of next week’s Asia Pacific summit in San Francisco where Xi Jinping is expected to meet Joe Biden. While the Tánaiste was in Beijing, Anthony Albanese was making the first visit there by an Australian prime minister since 2016.

“Some time back people were speculating as to whether China was going to withdraw into itself. I certainly don’t get any sense of that this week. And it was very definitively said to us, China is open,” Martin said before he left Shanghai on Thursday.

One of the Tánaiste’s messages to foreign minister Wang Yi and vice-president Han Zheng was that the European Union’s proposed “de-risking” policy should not be viewed as hostile to China. It was instead a response to the vulnerabilities exposed by Covid, the war in Ukraine and, in Ireland’s case, Brexit.

The EU insists that de-risking is not decoupling and today’s supply chains are so complex that it would be almost impossible to fully decouple the economies of China, Europe and the United States from one another. Martin acknowledged that Europe needs to work with China to address the climate emergency, to combat global poverty and to resolve conflicts.

“I think probably one of the key themes emerging and that will emerge into the future is the interdependence across the world, the interdependence between China and Europe now,” he said.

“There would always be issues with fair access to markets, level playing fields, resilience, making sure there are not over-dependencies in any one particular sector or product, always watching for vulnerabilities. But I think that interdependence needs to probably come more into the debate and more into the dialogue between China and Europe, China and the US.”

Martin was also clear that although Ireland expresses its foreign policy partly through the EU, it views its relationship with China chiefly through the UN, its charter and institutions. Ireland’s minority position within the EU in backing a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza is aligned with Beijing’s.

Although he said in Beijing that it was time to de-escalate conflicts and “stop the killing of people all over the world”, the Tánaiste rejects China’s call for a ceasefire in Ukraine. Ireland agrees with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy that Russia must withdraw all its troops before talks can begin.

Martin acknowledged that much of the world has observed a double standard in Europe’s failure to condemn Israel for killing civilians in Gaza in bombardments similar to those carried out by Russia in Ukraine.

“That’s one of the reasons we factored into our vote for the UN resolution. We’re very conscious of how the wider world views Europe. I don’t think the two conflicts are the same. There are some similarities but bear in mind Russia invaded Ukraine, violated the UN charter, a very black-and-white case,” he said.

“We believe Israel has a right to go after Hamas and has a right to counter Hamas terrorism because the attack on Israel was horrific. But it has to do so in a way that adheres to international law. When I was in Africa recently, I spoke to President [Cyril] Ramaphosa, to the president of Mozambique and the foreign minister in South Africa and they would make that point to me. But they can’t make it about Ireland because there is a consistency in the Irish approach.”