China and Ireland seek stronger ties during Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit

Ireland’s prime minister extended a warm welcome to visiting Chinese Premier Li Qiang on Wednesday, saying his country wanted a “strong and constructive relationship” with China despite not agreeing on some issues.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Li, China’s No. 2 leader and a close confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping, struck an upbeat note after a bilateral meeting.

“There is huge potential in our cooperation,” Li said.

Ireland was the third European country Li has visited since he was appointed as China’s top economic official last March.

He made the European Union the destination for his first trip abroad last summer, visiting Germany and France, Europe’s leading economies, amid growing calls for Europe to “de-risk” — avoid overreliance on Chinese trade — and tensions over Beijing’s stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Varadkar said that China has an “indispensable” global role in overcoming challenges from climate change to security issues including the conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East and Myanmar.

“We want to have a very strong and constructive relationship with China. One based on trust and respect, and one informed by our values and the multilateral system in which we’re both stakeholders,” he said.

“Of course, we won’t find agreement on everything but I hope we’ll always speak frankly and respectfully to each other, and candidly, as we did today,” Varadkar added.

The Irish leader said trade between the countries has tripled in the past five years, and that there was a clear desire on both sides to increase investment. China is Ireland’s fourth largest trade partner and fifth largest export market.

Varadkar also said that China will soon reopen its market to Irish beef. Chinese authorities suspended the exports in November after Irish veterinary officials discovered a case of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

Varadkar said Irish officials raised human rights concerns related to Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and the trial of Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai.

He said Li was happy to discuss the matters, but added: “I think its fair to say that they would have a very different view of the facts and dispute a lot of what’s said in the media.”

This is the first time a senior Chinese leader has visited Ireland since Li’s predecessor, Li Keqiang, visited in 2015. He arrived from the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, where he pitched China as an investment opportunity despite its slowing economy.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that Li’s visit to Switzerland and Ireland would “kick off the high-level exchanges between China and Europe in 2024.”

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