China to Grant Ireland Unilateral Visa-Free Treatment, Deepening Bilateral Ties

Posted by Written by Lucia Brancaccio Reading Time: 4 minutes

China and Ireland’s economic and diplomatic ties are set to strengthen following successful talks between Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and President Michael D. Higgins. As a symbol of its commitment to cooperative efforts, China will grant unilateral visa-free treatment for Irish citizens.

On January 17, 2024, China announced the implementation of a unilateral visa-free policy for citizens of Ireland. The news came in the wake of Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s bilateral meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, and a reception hosted by Irish President Michael D. Higgins, signaling a further deepening in the diplomatic relations between the two nations.

Central to the discussions was the promise of cooperation in upholding a free and open international trading system and practicing genuine multilateralism.

Premier Li’s arrival in Dublin on the evening of January 15 wraps up his four-day-long diplomatic tour across Europe, following his attendance at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

Key developments

The meeting between Chinese Premier Li and Irish Prime Minister Varadkar, and the reception with Irish President Higgins, mark several key developments:

  • Deepening economic and trade cooperation: During the meeting, both parties expressed their intent to deepen economic and trade cooperation in promising sectors such as green technology, biomanufacturing, and digital economy. They also reaffirmed their commitment to fostering a free and open international trading system while maintaining a stable and smooth flow of global industrial and supply chains. As a demonstration of this commitment, following the meeting, Beijing agreed to lift the two-month suspension on Irish beef export to China, previously imposed following the detection of an atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in November 2023.
  • Visa-free policy: In line with Switzerland’s example, China is set to implement a unilateral visa-free policy for Ireland, recognizing the significance of fostering people-to-people ties and cultural exchange. This visa initiative aims to facilitate the flow of personnel between the two nations. Concurrently, it is expected that Ireland will uphold an open, fair, and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese enterprises.
  • Bilateral ties and transparent communications: On the occasion of the 45th anniversary of China-Ireland diplomatic ties this year, both parties have renovated their engagement in continuously enhancing mutual understanding. They pledged to address each other’s key interests and concerns, strengthen cooperation across various fields, and push for greater development of the China-Ireland strategic partnership for mutually beneficial cooperation.

China-Ireland economic ties

Over the past decade, Ireland has seen a consistently positive trajectory in its economic ties with China. As of 2023, this strategic alliance has yielded significant results, positioning China as Ireland’s fourth-largest trading partner, the fifth-largest market for goods exports, and the seventh-largest destination for service exports. Moreover, China is the largest overseas market for Irish infant formula and pork exports.

Chinese Exports Ireland, 2022

(Top Five) Products Value
Machinery, nuclear reactors, boilers US$1.23 billion
Organic chemicals US$957.46 million
Electrical, electronic equipment US$727.55 million
Aircraft, spacecraft US$619.80 million
Furniture, lighting signs, prefabricated buildings US$223.23 million
Source: ITC Trade Map

On the other hand, Ireland is one of China’s major trading partners in the European Union (EU). Setting itself apart from other EU members, Ireland achieved a notable feat by running a trade surplus in goods with China, an accomplishment not replicated by its European counterparts. In 2022, Ireland played a pivotal role by exporting 77 percent of its integrated circuit production to China, further solidifying its economic cooperation with the Asian giant.

Irish Exports to China, 2022

(Top Five) Products Value
Electrical, electronic equipment US$9.34 billion
Pharmaceutical products US$1.49 billion
Organic chemicals US$600.01 million
Aircraft, spacecraft US$560.34 million
Optical, photo, technical, medical apparatus US$490.31 million
Source: ITC Trade Map

At present, more than 40 Chinese enterprises have invested in Ireland, with a total direct investment of more than EUR 9.2 billion (approximately US$10 billion). There are also many Irish companies doing business in China, and the total investment of Ireland in China exceeds EUR 2 billion (approx. US$2.1 billion).

This positive trend has fueled optimism for Ireland to emerge as the Chinese “gateway to Europe” for trade and investment. Ireland’s distinctive economic approach and business-friendly environment have contributed to this appeal.

The regulatory landscape in Ireland, underpinned by a low corporate tax rate, proves to be more consistent and conducive to business, making it an advantageous choice, especially for Chinese companies operating within or contemplating establishing a presence in the EU.

Sino-Irish diplomatic relations

Since the establishment of the Strategic Partnership for Mutually Beneficial Cooperation in 2012, the Sino-Irish relationship has enjoyed a decade of stable and enduring partnership.

This was made possible by Ireland’s particularly neutral stance that contrasted the EU’s rising attitude toward China, amidst escalating tensions between Brussels and Beijing.

As a matter of fact, despite Dublin declaring closer alignment in 2023 with the EU’s “de-risking” strategy, Ireland still recognizes China as a key global player, demonstrating appreciation for China’s achievements in economic and social development, and identifying it as a fundamental economic partner.

In the broader context of the challenges faced in EU-China relations, China and Ireland have exemplified a model of friendly coexistence and win-win cooperation between countries with distinct historical, cultural, and political backgrounds.

Their renewed commitment to mutual respect and equal treatment lays the groundwork for optimism, suggesting the potential to discover common ground for cooperation with other EU member states in 2024.

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