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N. Ireland broadens Brexit horizons

By Cecily Liu | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-12-05 14:56

A choir of children from Northern Ireland schools sing Chinese songs in Belfast's Parliament Buildings to welcome Chinese provincial and municipal leaders.provided to China Daily

Northern Ireland, once an industrial powerhouse, wants closer ties with China to safeguard against economic uncertainty as the United Kingdom prepares to exit from the European Union.

On Saturday, more than 100 provincial and municipal leaders from China gathered in Belfast for the third UK-China Regional Leaders Meeting, a gathering created during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK in October 2015, at the start of the “golden era” of relations between China and Britain.

“Brexit has prompted us to more actively engage with new markets further afield, and China is a key focus,” said Tim Losty, director of the Beijing bureau of Northern Ireland’s executive office.

“Up until the last few years, we have looked to the UK and Europe and North America as our primary markets. Now, we have a government office in Beijing, we have a Chinese consulate here, some of our businesses have achieved success in China. China is less far away,” Losty said.

Decision-makers from the provinces of Hubei, Liaoning, Jilin, and from the cities of Shanghai, Shenyang, Dalian and Benxi were all in Northern Ireland for the gathering. Shenyang and Belfast became sister cities last year, while Derry and Dalian linked up this year.

Following the meeting, agreements were signed in areas including trade, investment, education and research.

Northern Ireland has experienced considerable economic decline since its most prosperous time during the age of shipbuilding, symbolized by Titanic, which launched in 1912 and tragically sank on its maiden voyage.

But in recent years, it has experienced a structural shift, thanks to newly emerging technology sectors and agri-food security, which Northern Ireland academics and companies showcased during the meeting.

Zhou Jianping, a director-general of the National Development and Reform Commission, said he sees potential for tremendous collaboration and experience-sharing between Northern Ireland and Northeast China, which are both developing new economies to replace declining manufacturing industries.

“I suggest that, with this meeting as a good start, both sides should enhance communication and experience-sharing between old industrial cities from both countries, promoting overall and multi-field cooperation,” said Zhou.

The meeting followed October’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which established future strategic directions.

‘Strong drive’

The National Congress proclaimed that China is entering a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, under which it will further open up its economy, promote cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative and favor extensive consultation, joint efforts and shared benefits.

Wang Shuying, China’s consulate general in Belfast, said the fact that China has entered a new era brings “a new strong drive to the China-UK ‘golden era’,” and more opportunities for collaboration with Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s big push to strengthen its ties with China started in 2012 when Liu Yandong, who is now vice-premier, visited Belfast and opened the Confucius Institute at Ulster University.

In 2014, the Northern Ireland executive office opened a branch in Beijing. So far, 12 Northern Ireland companies have established offices in China, and four Chinese companies have invested in Northern Ireland through acquisition during the past two years.

China accounts for 1.3 percent of all exports from Northern Ireland, which is worth around $135 million a year. The main exports are animal hides used to make leather, electronic control devices and power-generating equipment.

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