A few days after my attendance at the US-China Business Council luncheon in Washington, I traveled to Ireland where, on February 19, Prime Minister Enda Kenny (“Taoiseach” is his title in Ireland) hosted a dinner in Dublin Castle to honor the visit of Vice-President Xi Jinping. I was privileged to attend that dinner and to meet both Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Vice-President Xi Jinping.
This was a very different experience from Washington for a number of reasons. First, Ireland is nearly 100 times smaller than the USA. Second, the luncheon in Washington was business oriented, hosted by the US-China Business Council in a hotel (the Marriott Wardman Park) whereas the Dublin dinner was a state affair in Dublin Castle hosted by the Taoiseach himself. In contrast with the 600+ mostly business guests in Washington, the dinner in Dublin was much smaller, about 130 people, mostly government officials, and representatives of Irish education, culture, and agriculture. Business and finance people were the small minority and had a low profile.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny delivered a welcoming speech during dinner which was reciprocated by Xi Jinping who expressed confidence in Europe’s eventual economic recovery. The translations of the speeches were not simultaneous, broadcasted as it was in Washington through individual wireless headsets, but were delivered the old-fashioned way by expert translators from a separate podium in the room. A bit slower perhaps, but distinctive and effective. The elegant dining room in Dublin Castle was a great backdrop for the dinner.
After dinner, most of the attendants embarked on busses and concluded the evening with a private showing of “Riverdance” in the O’Reilly theatre. This was Irish hospitality at its best, low-key and yet grand.
There was much speculation in the Irish press about the reasons why Xi Jinping selected Ireland for his first call in Europe. Two things for sure: the decision was not recent and it was no accident. Ireland’s selection was carefully vetted. Probably earlier than 2005 which is when Xi Jinping had first traveled to Ireland.
The choice of Ireland is a good one: it is full of upsides and has little to no downside for China. The Celtic Tiger is a good entry point for China into Europe. Not just because it is green, in more ways than one, or because it is a good destination for high tech investments, but also because Ireland is known for its highly educated, plucky, English-speaking people who have recently demonstrated again an ability to survive against the odds. In fact, there are signs that Ireland will soon be ready for a comeback. Its involvement with China might help.
But my guess is that Ireland was chosen this time as much for what it is as for what it is not: controversial. Think of the alternatives: Xi Jinping is up and coming, he does not need his constituency to wonder about his interaction with France and Germany – and their baggage, he does not need the drama of Italy and Spain and certainly does not want the anguish of Greece. He needs a solid, neutral platform that he can rely on, that is politically safe and unassailable. A country that has many friends and few enemies, a place that he can come back to. No other Euro country fits the bill as well as Ireland.
So what did the first two stops of Xi Jinping’s “world tour” have in common? In my opinion, it is the introduction of a statesman to the Western world. Sure, the countries were different, the stated agendas and official objectives were different, but the overriding objective of the trip to both countries, whether we recognize it as such or not, was the introduction of Xi Jinping to the West.
In fact, what mattered the most was the stature-defining element of the visit for the Chinese public. Millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of Chinese watched multiple segments of the trip on TV and I think what they saw was mostly acceptance, respect and approval. They saw that this man who will lead China for the next 10 years had the wingspan to impress.
It is hard not to be impressed by Xi Jinping. He is articulate and deliberate; he has a pensive, engaging smile and a firm handshake; he happily shows his human, carefree side, but the serious side is always there. Here is the man who will soon hold the reins of China, arguably one of the toughest and most influential jobs in the world. He conveys the feeling that he has prepared for this for a long time, that he has studied the challenges, that he knows it wont be easy. And that he is willing.