Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Then Mr. Li Asked His Translator "Who Is This Cowen Guy, Anyway?"

I wrote recently about Brian Cowen's meeting with Li Changchun, the 5th ranking member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo. Sadly, we probably won't be getting obligatory "Lakes of Ponchatrain" mobile ringtones; however, according to His Biffoness, we will be able to avail of major opportunities to increase trade and investment between Ireland and China.

Apparently, Ireland's reputation is "very strong" in what the Press Association insists on terming the "communist state" (remind me again, was it in Ireland or China where the government recently heavily manipulated the financial sector for the "national interest"?). If Ireland is so well known in China, then this represents a major turn around from a short few years ago. I seem to remember numerous people in both Beijing and Guangzhou asking me "Ireland - isn't that in England?".

However, let's give the Government the benefit of the doubt, and assume that "Ireland Inc." truly is impanted firmly in the mind of the Chinese consumer. What do we plan to sell to them?
"(Cowen) told visiting officials that Ireland's relationship with China is at the heart of the country's new strategy for trade, tourism and investment.
And he used the meeting to raise the issue of the export of beef to China."
I'm torn on the latter point - we are, after all, still a nation famed for our agriculture, and it is no accident that some of the largest Irish multinationals are in the food sector. However, it is worrying that Cowen seems to think Sino-Irish trade should hinge on beef - by which I fear he means the raw primary product, as opposed to any processed goods. From the little I know of agricultural economics, it seems that when a rich country buys raw materials/food stuffs off a poor country, in the long run the poor country loses, becoming increasingly dependent on the whims of the rich nation's consumers and the political demands of the rich nation's own food producers (witness realtionship between farmers in developing nations and the EU, for example). The simple fact is that China is the rich country and Ireland is the poor country. And not simply in gross terms - there is 875,000 multimillionaires in China. In effect, the PRC represents a First World nation with a population of around 300 million (albeit they are living cheek-by-jowl with a developing nation of a billion). Beijing holds a lot of the economic cards in its relationship with us (and, to be fair, with everyone else) so we are going to have to box clever.

As for China being at the "heart of (our) new strategy for trade, tourism and investment"; would anyone in Government mind articulating what, exactly, that strategy is? And how we are going to carry it out when Enterprise Ireland has only got offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and the IDA have only got an office in Beijing?

And Brian, for God's sake, the Chinese are sitting on US$3 trillion in foreign currency reserves - ever think of asking Mr. Li are there any Chinese companies that would like to use Ireland as their EU hub? As I've written before, Ireland needs to be positioning itself as China's gateway to Europe, helping Beijing navigate through the complex regulatory and economic environment within the EU, and carving out a niche as China's friend within the Community.

But, no Brian - you just ask them if they want any Mullingar heifers.

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