China and Ireland talk up trade on visit by Xi Jinping

Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping swings a hurling stick in Croke Park, Dublin, 19 February
Image caption Xi Jinping swung a hurling stick in Croke Park

The man tipped to become China's future leader, Vice-President Xi Jinping, is making a three-day visit to the Irish Republic with the focus on trade.

On his only stop in an EU state after visiting the US, Mr Xi arrived with a delegation of 150 business leaders and government officials.

New pacts to promote trade, investment and education were signed.

While China dwarfs the Republic, both are big exporters and Ireland is keen to promote its tourist industry.

Mr Xi arrived on Saturday after a five-day visit to the US, and is due to leave again on Monday, heading for Turkey.

Campaigners have called on Irish leaders to raise China's human rights record during talks with the vice-president.

'Much to offer'

Mr Xi and the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), Enda Kenny, witnessed the signing of agreements at Dublin Castle between government departments, state agencies, universities and companies.

"Ireland and China have much to offer each other in food and agriculture, in high technology research and in investment," said Mr Kenny.

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Bilateral trade between the two countries was worth about 4.2bn euros (£3.5bn; $5.5bn) in 2010.

Although China accounts for just 2.5% of Irish merchandise exports and 1.9% of services, it is being targeted as a key growth area, Reuters news agency notes.

After flying into Shannon Airport in the west of the Republic on Saturday evening, Mr Xi visited the offices of Shannon Development business park and attended a traditional banquet at Bunratty Castle.

On Sunday, he was given a 40-minute tour of a family-run dairy farm at Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, before visiting the Cliffs of Moher.

He then travelled to Dublin for a demonstration at Croke Park of Irish field sports - hurling and Gaelic football.

The Chinese vice-president swung a hurling stick and kicked a football for the cameras.

"He showed some admirable skills for his first time kicking on what is... a very holy turf for us," said Alan Milton, a spokesman at the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).

Mr Xi was also due to see a special performance of the hit show Riverdance.

'Exemplary' relations

Dr Vincent Cunnane, Shannon Development's chief executive, said the trip would enhance good relations between Irish and Chinese businesses.

"China has a population of over 1.3 billion which represents 20% of the world's population," he said.

"The fact that the Chinese vice-president is spending almost three days in Ireland is a major boost for the country."

Mr Xi's visit is being closely followed by Chinese state media.

China's Ambassador to Ireland, Luo Linquan, described the two countries' ties as "an exemplar of how friendly co-existence can be maintained between two countries of different sizes and systems".

Answering written questions from the Irish Times, Mr Xi himself said Chinese people admired Irish people's "enterprising spirit and enormous contribution to development around the world".

But Noeleen Hartigan, programmes director of Amnesty International Ireland, said it was crucial the Irish government made clear the concerns of many Irish people about human rights abuses in China.

"Even in the midst of a recession we cannot let trade opportunities blind us to our responsibility to support courageous Chinese human rights activists risking their freedom and their lives every single day," she said.

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