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Tánaiste's Address to the 3rd Annual Conference of the Asia Studies Ireland Association

Trade, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Asia and Oceania, 2011

Address by Tánaiste to 3rd Annual Conference of the Asia Studies Ireland Association,
University College Cork, 30 September 2011

President Dr Murphy, Professor Hong, ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour and a pleasure to be invited here today for the third annual conference of the Asia Studies Ireland Association.

Since its inception in 2008, the Association has achieved so much of its mission to promote the study, teaching and research of topics relating to Asia, with a particular focus on the building of Irish understanding of Asia.

I would like to acknowledge in particular the role of Dr Tom Hardiman, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Association, who has contributed so much over the years to fostering all the facets of Irish-Asia relations.

Most third level colleges in Ireland have programmes relating to Asia, but I have to acknowledge that none comes near to the School of Asian Studies here in Cork, led by you Professor Hong, and so strongly supported by the University President, Dr Murphy. The school has developed and expanded exponentially since its establishment in 2006 and now offers a wide range of academic programmes at undergraduate, post graduate and doctoral level. Fostering cooperation with partners in Asia, Europe and America has been key to your success. 

Saluting you Professor Hong, President Murphy and UCC is only fitting, but I think you will recognise it is praise indeed from a Galway graduate like myself.

This two-day conference is under the general theme of: “Asia’s Rise and Its Impact on Europe and Ireland: Challenges and Opportunities”.

While most of the focus of my comments will be on our economic relations with Asia - particularly fitting in the present environment - I am fully aware of the need for Ireland and Asia, and the EU and Asia, to understand each other better and deepen our relationship on all levels.

To reach its full potential, the relationship must involve the two regions working together on the following challenges:

To enhance global economic growth through more trade and investment in both directions;

To increase regional and international peace and security;

To eradicate poverty;

To raise human rights and governance standards;


To address major global challenges, such as sustainable development.

Over the last three decades, the dynamism displayed by Japan, China and the Asian economies of Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea earned Asia recognition as an engine of growth for the world economy.    India too, in recent years has added its own special model of dynamism to the Asian economic success story, as have the economies of Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

In 1960, Asia accounted for approximately 4% of world GNP; that figure has advanced to more than 25% today.

Nationally our links in Asia go back a long way.  Our independence struggle was influenced by, and influenced those in Asia.  One of the first Embassies which Ireland opened outside of Europe was in New Delhi in 1964.   Yet despite these historical links, by the 1990s, the relationship with Asia was in need of revitalisation. 

Following a visit to China, the then Taoiseach directed that an Asia Strategy Group, drawn from the private and public sectors, consider how to increase and enhance relations with Asia. 

The consequence was our Asia Strategy, launched in 1999. It had two principal objectives: to improve political and business contacts throughout Asia and to raise awareness of Ireland both as an investment location and as a source of high quality goods and services.  The first phase of the Strategy, from 1999 to 2004, saw merchandise trade exports from Ireland to Asia growing from €3.6 billion in 1999 to over €6 billion in 2004.

The second phase of the Strategy, from 2005 to 2009, aimed to establish a coherent policy of engagement on all levels. It saw the opening of new missions in Shanghai, Singapore and Vietnam. In tandem with the development of diplomatic contacts, our State Agencies increased their engagement with Asia.  Enterprise Ireland now has 10 offices in Asia, while the IDA has 8.  Bord Bía and Tourism Ireland both have an increased presence on the ground.

The second stage of the Asia Strategy set a target that total Irish exports to eight priority countries [China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam] rise to €9billion per annum by 2009.  By the end of 2008, total exports to these priority countries had already reached €11 billion. 

In 1999 there were only 46 Irish companies with a presence in Asia.  Today there are more than 250.

From 1999 to 2009, Irish trade with Asian countries grew by over 300%.  Asian countries now rank amongst our most important merchandise trade partners.  China is our largest trading partner in Asia, and our 8th largest partner globally.  At the turn of the century, bilateral trade with China was worth €715 million annually. Last year, it was €4.2 billion. 

Japan is our 11th largest trade partner, with trade of over €2.5billion.  Indeed, Ireland enjoys a trade surplus with all of the priority Asian countries.

There is also significant Foreign Direct Investment in Ireland from Asia.  For example, over 40 Japanese companies have a presence here.  These companies operate mainly in the Pharmaceuticals, Medical Technologies, International Financial Services and ICT sectors.

However we are still in the early stages of our FDI relationship, and there remains great potential for growth.  IDA’s recently-established Emerging Markets Team has a target of 20% of new Greenfield investment projects to come from high-growth and emerging economies. 

At a time when Ireland is seeking to trade its way out of recession, this Government continues to be focussed on Asian markets.  Export industries in the Asian region identified as having the best potential for increasing economic growth and spurring job creation in Ireland include Energy and Green Technologies, Food and Agriculture, Financial Services and Aviation Leasing, Pharmaceuticals, Medical Devices and Educational services.

Ireland’s total food and drink exports rose by 11% in 2010. As societies in Asia become richer and their food preferences change, there is clearly much potential for further growth in food exports.    With the removal of quotas, our milk production is set to double by 2015.  The Chinese and Indian markets are of particular interest for the dairy sector. 

On Education services, Asia has overtaken Europe in terms of students.  There are 11,000 Asian students engaged on Irish Higher Education programmes here in Ireland and abroad, and in 2009 China and India, represented two of our top three origins of foreign PhD students. 

With the addition of trade promotion to my portfolio as Minister, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and our Embassy network will drive the implementation of our new strategy in close cooperation with other relevant Departments and the State Agencies.

The enhanced responsibilities under the banner of trade promotion will also allow our Embassies in Asia to develop further their role in supporting Irish business and equally importantly, in building economic linkages between Ireland and our priority trading partners.

When I spoke to the conference of Irish Ambassadors in Dublin last June, I stressed that the priority of Embassies and Consulates will be to continue to turn our network of contacts into an asset, which can demonstrate tangible returns for the Irish economy.  Under the new arrangements, my Department has responsibility for managing the new Export Trade Council, which I chaired yesterday. As well as Government and Agency representatives, it has private sector representation and draws on the experience of those involved in growing export oriented business. A key focus of the Council is the further deepening of trade links with the Asia-Pacific region. 

Global Irish Network
The Government can also draw on the expertise of the members of the Global Irish Network. Its establishment was one of the key outcomes of the Global Irish Economic Forum in 2009. I look forward to engaging in detail with almost 300 Network members, including from Asia, who will gather in Dublin Castle on 7 and 8 October for the second Global Forum.  

Farmleigh Fellowship
I could not address a gathering such as this in UCC without acknowledging the tremendous achievement of one of the most practical and innovative initiatives to come out of the first Global Irish Economic Forum. The Farmleigh Fellowship, established by Network members based in Singapore is providing 23 graduates with the opportunity to gain vital experience in Asia. The participants in this MSc programme are developing invaluable networking experience and knowledge of the various regions in Asia in which they are placed. When they have completed their periods of study in UCC and Singapore, and the practical work placements across Asia, they will be uniquely positioned amongst young Irish professionals to take advantage of the opportunities in Asia.   

Irish economic recovery
I know there are diplomats and other friends from Asia in the audience today. You have all undoubtedly been following the difficulties faced by the Irish economy since 2008. I think it would be important for me to address some of the issues and outline our ability to rise above the present difficulties.

There is no doubt that Ireland has faced and continues to face serious challenges.  Nevertheless, the economy returned to growth in the first quarter of this year after three years of contraction.  Ireland’s balance of payments current account recorded a small surplus last year, and the position is expected to strengthen in the coming years.  Ireland is already paying its way in the world.

Ireland is meeting the quarterly targets set for it by its funding partners in the European Union and the IMF and recent European agreements will make it easier to continue meeting those targets as we get the deficit down and restore order to our public finances.

The new Government, which entered office in March with the biggest parliamentary majority in the history of the State, is determined to take the tough decisions needed to turn our fragile recovery into sustainable recovery and hasten the day when we can return to the financial markets.

Growing exports is central to our jobs strategy.  We estimate that, for every 100 jobs created in foreign owned exporting firms in Ireland, a further 70 jobs are created elsewhere in the domestic economy.  The indirect employment associated with indigenous firms is higher again.

Outreach to Asian countries
This Government has been working to take the message to our partners in Asia.  Ministers Varadkar and Bruton both visited India earlier this year.  The Indian Statistics Minister was in Ireland in August when he had extensive meetings including with my colleague Phil Hogan and with Irish universities and business interests.

The Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs visited Vietnam earlier this month.  Minister Cannon has just returned from a visit to Singapore and Malaysia where he signed an important agreement on Higher Education with the Malaysian Government. 

Also this month we were honoured with a visit from Mr. Zhang Gaoli, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and Secretary of the Tianjin Municipal Committee.  And we received Mayor Guo of Beijing, in the context of the recent twinning between Dublin and the Chinese capital.  Last year Ireland hosted Mr. Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

The Taoiseach will visit China, hopefully before the end of this year. Discussions are ongoing on the dates and programme for his trip.  It is anticipated that he will lead a significant trade delegation as well as meeting with the highest levels of the Chinese leadership.  

In mid October, I myself will be visiting Japan and Korea where a central theme of my discussions will be Ireland’s strengths as a location to do business.  I will have discussions with political leaders and meet with prospective IDA and Enterprise Ireland clients as well as addressing business and financial leaders. 

I am particularly looking forward to speaking at the Asia Pacific Irish Business Forum in Seoul and engaging with the network of Irish and Asian businessmen which it represents.  I attended the last meeting of this Forum in Croke Park in June and was impressed by the scope of contacts and cooperation which already exists throughout Asia.  I also hope to be there for the opening of the Asian Gaelic Games – the biggest Irish sporting event of its kind and a clear example of the depth of cooperation and contact which this country has throughout Asia. 

Economic growth in Asia has been accompanied by the development of structures that promote cooperation and integration within the region. One of the earliest and the most advanced of these structures is the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which was founded in 1967.  Its key position in the Asia-Pacific region, its dedication to peace and stability, and its important economic weight has made ASEAN an essential partner for the EU – a partnership which goes back to 1980.  We would hope to develop a similarly strong relationship with SAARC the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

ASEM, the Asia-Europe Meeting, is Europe’s major channel for communicating with Asia more broadly.  It was established in 1996 to strengthen relations between the two regions through a process of dialogue and cooperation.   It meetings at summit, ministerial and senior official levels are important and provide opportunities for dialogue. However, I think we do need to ensure that meetings in ASEM and with ASEAN are meaningful encounters, which allow for real dialogue and not just a series of set speeches. 

For those outside the European Union, the variety and complexity of our institutional networks can be confusing.   The advent of the European External Action Service will, I hope, make Europe more understandable to our Asian friends and equally importantly give the EU a more holistic appreciation of Asia and individual Asian counties.

In trying to appreciate the full context of Asian history and culture we in Europe must shake off the 20th century western colonial stereotype of Asia as a backward place. When thinking about the past arrogance of the West towards Asia, I am reminded of that great retort of Gandhi when asked by a reporter what he thought of western civilisation - he replied: “It would be a good idea”!

Ireland, because of its own historical colonial experience, has perhaps a more sensitive perspective on Asia. The esteem in which our educators and medical practitioners are held in Asia is, I believe, a testament to this. Nevertheless, I am conscious that our Embassy and agency network in Asia plays a crucial role in ensuring that we remain sensitive to the broader cultural environment, which can change.  Those doing business in Asia appreciate our networks on the ground as a resource, not just to help them promote their products but as a source of unique advice on how to navigate respectfully in the different cultural waters which make up the wonderful mosaic of Asia.

More broadly, Ireland takes an active role in the international community, trying to assist in the resolution of conflicts and disputes. Asia is no exception to this. However, we approach this in a humble manner, recognising our own failings. I am very conscious that a continent, which produced the Holocaust, Guernica and the Gulag in one short century, has no monopoly on morality and has no basis for claiming superiority. We also are painfully and publicly aware of our own national shortcomings.

I would like to think that these failures in our own histories give us something we can share in terms of lessons learned and errors to avoid when confronting issues of democracy and human rights in the continent of Asia. 

However, different standards of human rights for different countries or peoples can never be accepted – the child growing up in Yangoon is just as much entitled to respect and human rights as is the child growing up here in Cork. At the same time, we are ready to work sensitively with our friends in Asia in addressing the real needs of reform and democracy, where they arise. The intolerable human rights situations in Burma and Sri Lanka come immediately to mind as do the enormous challenges in bringing peace and real stability to Afghanistan and working to end the nightmare of the people of North Korea. I think our contribution to the establishment of stability in Timor Leste is a testament to Ireland’s good faith in these matters.

In the spirit of contributing further to a culture of cooperation and conciliation in the field of human rights, Ireland has decided to seek election to the UN Human Rights Council for the period from 2013 to 2015. This will also coincide with or Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2013. Should Ireland become a member of the UN Human Rights Council, we plan to adopt a conciliatory and cooperative role which will aim to achieve effective solutions to human rights issues while accommodating the views of other countries.

In the context of the broader understanding of Asia that I am glad to see that your conference programme is not just dealing with the economic relationship, important and all as that is, but it is also addressing the diversity of Asia and Asian relations with Ireland and Europe. 

Broad-brush tabloid analysis often suggests an artificial homogeneity for Asia.  However, we know that it is a continent, with diverse political and economic systems.  It is home to the world’s largest democracy, India, and also to closed repressive regimes such as Burma/Myanmar and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.   It is also a region of rich cultural diversity.  It is that multi-dimensional and vibrant Asia that you are discussing at this conference. It is that Asia with which Ireland seeks to deepen and broaden its relationship.  I wish you well in your continuing deliberations.