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Ireland increasingly seen by China as a bridge to the EU

Extensive media coverage of prime minister’s visit to Dublin focused on Ireland’s neutrality and ‘openness’ in face of EU protectionism

Chinese premier Li Qiang’s visit to Ireland was front-page news in China on Thursday, with a report in the People’s Daily accompanied by a picture of him with President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin. Other newspapers carried the report by Xinhua, China’s news agency, and the story also made the television news.

“China meets with Irish President Higgins,” the People’s Daily headline said.

The President featured prominently in the coverage, and Chinese readers might be forgiven for thinking that the country is governed from the Áras.

“Under the strategic guidance of President Xi Jinping and President Michael D Higgins, the China-Ireland strategic partnership for mutually beneficial co-operation has increasingly deepened, and exchanges and co-operation in various fields have continuously expanded, bringing tangible benefits to the two peoples,” the People’s Daily quoted Li as saying.


Ireland was only the fourth European country Li visited since he became the second most important figure in the Chinese Communist Party last year. He visited France and Germany soon after taking up his position and he was in Switzerland this week, making an official visit and attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The Chinese media noted that Ireland has now joined a handful of European countries whose citizens will be able to visit China without a visa. Under the policy, which has applied to France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain since the beginning of last month, tourists, businesspeople and others can come to China visa-free for visits of up to 15 days.

Chinese reports did not mention the other news that made the headlines in Dublin: Beijing’s decision to readmit Irish beef into its market after it was suspended last November following the discovery of an atypical case of BSE. In an unusual move, the Chinese authorities appear to have curtailed their own investigative process and simply accepted Ireland’s scientific data about the atypicality of the case.

“China and Ireland should continuously expand trade, strengthen co-operation in green and low-carbon development, sustainable agriculture, finance and other fields, and expand innovation co-operation in digital economy, biomedicine and artificial intelligence, making the pie of co-operation bigger,” Li said.

Ireland is the only European Union member state that enjoys a trade surplus with China at a time when Brussels is considering a range of protectionist measures. These include an investigation into China’s subsidies for its electric vehicle industry and a proposal to “de-risk” the European economy from an over-dependence on Chinese products and supply chains.

Some of these moves are influenced by the increasingly hostile political rhetoric about China that has crossed the Atlantic from Capitol Hill in recent years. Li’s visit was part of a diplomatic initiative to urge the EU not to abandon its commitment to free trade or start a trade war with China.

“It is hoped that Ireland will play a greater role in promoting the sound and stable development of China-Europe relations,” Xinhua quoted Li as saying.

China hopes that Ireland, as one of the most open economies in Europe, will be a voice within the EU against protectionism. A report in the Global Times went further, identifying Ireland’s neutrality as a factor in its relationship with China.

“As one the very few neutral countries in the EU, Ireland has maintained very sound and stable relations with China,” Wang Yimei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Wednesday, noting that there was great potential for bilateral co-operation in areas such as digital innovation and climate change.. The paper reported: “Wang said that Ireland’s ‘neutrality’ and its focus on ‘openness’ rather than protectionism mean that it could act as a bridge between China and the EU. ‘This makes it more likely that Ireland can play an important role in China-EU relations,’ he said.”

Ireland’s military neutrality, which may be an embarrassment to parts of the country’s political, academic and media elites, is an advantage not only in China but across the Global South. In much of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, Nato is not seen as the sword and shield of benign liberal values but as the sharp end of the spear of western imperialism and arrogance.

There are many elements that inform Ireland’s foreign policy, among them EU membership, the relationship with Washington and the structure of the economy. But the legacy of being a colony, a commitment to global, multilateral institutions and a concern and respect for the world’s poor have also helped to shape it.

These are the dimensions of Ireland’s foreign policy championed by President Higgins throughout his political career, which he has continued to highlight as head of state. His role may not be as central as the People’s Daily imagines but, as Ireland seeks to extend its global, diplomatic footprint, he is a valuable and highly effective asset.