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Ireland and China in a changing world: Taoiseach's Speech at Tsinghua University

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, friends:

Good morning.

It is an honour and a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you today at Tsinghua University.

I am particularly delighted to be addressing a group of young people who not only embody the achievements of China today, but who I know will play an important role in shaping the China of tomorrow.

This great University celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, and has been at the centre of China's political, economic and social development throughout its existence.

I know that many Chinese leaders have been educated here and I greatly admire the University mission of unceasingly doing your best, so as to assume the responsibilities of social commitment.

This is my first visit to China. I am here at the invitation of Premier Wen Jiabao, just one month after Vice President Xi Jinping visited Ireland.

During my visit, I have had excellent meetings with both the Premier and the Vice President.  Later today, I will meet with Chairman Wu Banggou.   I also met with Mayor Han Zheng during my visit to Shanghai.

In both Beijing and Shanghai, we also had a number of very successful business meetings.

On behalf of the people of Ireland and of my Government, I am deeply appreciative of the warm welcome and generous hospitality shown to me and my delegation during our visit, and of the extremely productive discussions we have had.

2012, the dragon year, is an important year for the development of China-Ireland relations, but it is also important in other respects.

At the global level, this year sees the continuing empowerment of what used to be called the developing world, in Asia, in Africa and in Latin America.

Global challenges include pressure on the environment, and adapting multilateral and international financial institutions to meet the requirements, challenges and shifts in power of the second decade of the 21st century.

We also see serious work being done to realign and rectify the European economy, as we deal collectively with the challenges of recovering from the worst international financial and economic crisis to strike the western world for many decades.

In China, this is a year of important decisions – the 18th Party Congress will attract great international attention.

A profound restructuring of the Chinese economy is taking place in line with the 12th Five Year Plan, as the historic task of China's Reform and Opening Up continues.

This process of Reform and Opening Up, and the consequent modernisation and urbanisation of China, is not only transforming this country, but also having profound effects on the whole world. The ambitious goals of the current Five Year Plan:

are all areas where Ireland has much to offer.

We want to intensify our cooperation with China and I foresee great mutual benefit from increased cooperation. 

In Ireland, just one year ago I formed a new Government after our General Election.

Our aim was to put our high technology and trading economy back on the right track after several years of excessive and unsustainable focus on property development and real estate speculation that in turn was compounded by the international financial crisis.

Fortunately our underlying economy remains agile and resilient. The Government which I lead was elected to deal with these problems and restore Ireland's path of fast and technology based economic growth.

We have taken decisive action to address and resolve these problems, in cooperation with the European institutions and the International Monetary Fund. We are focussing again on our core strengths as a high technology, innovation-based economy with advanced education, agricultural, tourism and service sectors.

We have adjusted Ireland's economy to restore our competitive edge, and we are actively using our longstanding effective role and influence with the European Union to support that.

Our growing relationship

The positive development of our bilateral relationship underlines that geographical distance and differences in size are no barriers to the development of a warm, friendly and deep relationship.

Ireland is a small country with a population of less than 5 million on the western edge of Europe – less than one third of the population of Beijing.

China is the most populous nation on earth, and is the second most powerful economy on earth. Despite these differences in size the parallels in our respective national experiences can serve as a basis for widening and deepening that relationship.

Both our countries have long histories with a strong sense of commitment to culture, family and tradition. And we have both radically transformed economically and socially over the past forty years.

I believe that in both of our countries, as we develop economically, there is a strong understanding of our long histories as well as of the need to balance between tradition and modernity.

For Ireland, the re-achievement of our national independence ninety years ago meant working to ensure economic and social progress, as well as consolidating our political sovereignty.

A history of emigration means that our overseas Irish communities vastly outnumber the population of Ireland itself.

There are large such communities in the US, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other countries. Some twenty US Presidents are descended from Irish emigrants, and the goodwill to Ireland from our Irish communities around the world is something we hold dear.

China also has large overseas communities and I think that China understands our situation well.

Ireland's economic and social transformation

In recent years, Ireland has forged an international reputation for excellence in software, life sciences, high quality food, and education.

But when we first joined the European Union in 1973, Ireland was the poorest member of the EU, with a national income just 60% of the EU average. Our economy was outdated and undercapitalised and our agriculture sector was inefficient.

In recent years, however, our GDP per capita has risen to well above the EU average.

We had our own version of Reform and Opening Up, which included a number of key elements:

Ireland has become the preferred location in Europe for foreign direct investment from the US and other countries.

I believe that our experience presents valuable opportunities for China.

Let me give one example: many Chinese leaders have visited and studied our pioneering Shannon economic zone, most recently Vice President Xi Jinping during his visit last month.

More generally, in recent years, Irish trade with China is growing prosperously. The number of Irish companies with a permanent trading or business presence in China has increased 300% in five years.

In addition to areas such as software, high technology and education, there are many opportunities for greater Sino/Irish trade and exchanges in food, agriculture, services, cultural and people to people exchanges.

In the education sector, our universities have many collaboration agreements with Chinese universities, including Tsinghua.

The Irish narrative of transformation has many complementarities with China's own process of reform. I want to build on these for our mutual benefit.

Thanks to the introduction of technologies which connect people and businesses, and our capability to attract foreign investment, what were previously seen as geographical disadvantages for Ireland were decisively overcome.

I see a similar dynamic at work in the fast developing parts of China, notable the west and the north east.

Despite our small size over 1000 overseas companies have chosen Ireland as the hub of their European businesses and networks.

Eight of the top ten global pharmaceutical companies are based in Ireland.

Eight of the top ten medical technology companies are also based in Ireland.

Nine of the top ten global software companies have operations in Ireland, helping to make us the second largest exporter of software in the world.

We are the largest producer in the world of infant feed formula. Despite our small size we are also the fourth largest net exporter of beef, all of it of a very high quality.

Gateway to and from Europe

When the European Union created its single internal market in 1992, Ireland positioned itself to be a gateway into the market for companies from the US and other countries.

Today, businesses trading from Ireland enjoy tariff and border free trade across this internal market of over 500 million consumers.

And following the adjustments in our economy in recent years these businesses are also benefiting from a more competitive, business friendly environment in Ireland, including lower labour costs and more affordable real estate.

I now invite Chinese companies and investors also to see Ireland as a competitive and supportive gateway into the European Union market.

When I took office a year ago I set a goal to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business by 2016. We are making steady progress to achieve this goal.

Responding to the economic crisis

In that first year in office, my Government has taken decisive and effective action to ensure that Ireland responds to our economic and financial challenges.

Our economy returned to growth last year and modest growth is expected to continue in 2012 despite a very challenging global environment.

We have restructured and recapitalised our banking sector, with private investments and deposits now flowing back into our banks.

We are implementing a solid strategy to bring our public finances back into order.

Our actions and results have sent strong signals to the financial markets: yields in Irish government bonds have more than halved since last July.

Our progress is repeatedly recognised by the Troika of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission.

There is an important lesson for the future in our experience: that it is not only the volume but it is also the quality of economic growth that matters.

Growth through inflation of asset prices is simply not as valuable or sustainable as growth which promotes employment and develops skills. That is a lesson that has been learnt in Ireland.

Visit to China

As I said at the outset, I have had very productive talks with the Chinese leadership during my visit here this week.

The political relations between the Governments of China and Ireland are friendly and flourishing. Ireland has always fully followed a one-China policy, and Ireland strongly supports the further development of EU/China relationships.

A strong friendship allows for dialogue on a wide range of issues, including some where we have different angles of vision and different traditions.

While we support China's choice of its development path, I am pleased that we can and cooperate and discuss, in a mutually respectful way, issues such as human rights.

We understand the challenges that China is facing in its development and I am very aware of the extraordinary achievement of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China.

In line with the Irish Government's wish to both deepen and widen the relationship, there has been a blossoming of contacts, exchanges and relationships not only in trade but also in education, tourism, agriculture, in new areas of cooperation such as financial services and environment, food and agriculture services and in the important human and cultural services.

China and Ireland are strong supporters of the United Nations. I would like to see even more cooperation in areas such as UN peacekeeping, where China is a major contributor of personnel to UN missions and where Ireland has been active beyond its small size for many years.

Indeed, since the UN was founded, not a single day has passed without Irish personnel serving under the UN flag in some part of the globe.  As leader of a small country, that is something of which I am immensely proud.

People to people exchanges

People to people exchanges are an increasing part of our bilateral relationship. There is a vibrant Chinese community in Ireland, many of whom I have met, and on this visit I am meeting members of the growing Irish community here in China.

Culture, in my view, is an inseparable ingredient of foreign policy, often, defining a countries reputation or contribution.

In the cultural field, relations between Ireland and China are closer than ever before.

It is a tribute to the very personal ties between Irish and Chinese people that we see a wide variety of cultural events occurring both in Ireland and China.

The recent two week Irish cultural festival here in Beijing, organised with a range of Chinese partners, attracted strong support and interest, as did similar festivals in Shanghai and Hong Kong recently. 

I was especially impressed to hear that the Forbidden City Concert Hall was packed to capacity for a festival performance of Irish music and dance.

Of course this should not really be a surprise – Irish art and culture is represented in China through exhibitions and performances of various kinds.

Riverdance is one of the best known Irish cultural performances here in China, and it was my pleasure to accompany Vice President Xi Jinping to a special performance of Riverdance during his recent visit to Ireland.

Other famous Irish music artists include U2, Westlife, Enya and The Chieftains.

Irish culture is close to the people. As a small nation, we celebrate our Irish traditions in an outward looking and inclusive way, and invite people of other nationalities to join us in our celebrations.

Irish power is soft power, based on friendship, culture and a tradition of innovation and creative expression.

I am impressed by the depth of knowledge that many Chinese people have about Ireland's writers, including Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, who was a strong friend of China. James Joyce's novel Ulysses has been translated not once, but twice, into Chinese.

Around 5,000 Chinese students are registered with Irish third level educational institutions, with many more studying on English language courses. 

Irish universities and other education institutes now have over 120 joint agreements in place with universities here, and 14 Irish colleges now have offices in China. 

These educational exchanges are also a crucial element in people to people exchanges which deepen mutual understanding and which cement bilateral friendships.

I am convinced that there is great scope to increase and expand these exchanges in the times ahead.


Ladies and gentlemen, let me say how much it has been a pleasure to address you here this morning.

I have a great sense of the opportunity to build not only Ireland/China relations but also EU-China relations, which we will certainly seek to do during our EU Presidency in the first half of 2013.

In closing I want to share with you some of my main objectives for the future relationship between Ireland and China. Widening and deepening this relationship serves the interests of both countries.

I am especially pleased, therefore, that during the official talks in my visit here we have agreed to conclude a strategic partnership between Ireland and China for mutually beneficial cooperation, covering these and other important areas.

I hope that many of you will visit Ireland in the future. I thank you for your hospitality and look forward to the next steps in building ever-stronger relations between our two countries.

Thank you.


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