Dr Vincent Cunnane said the prospect of Chinese foreign direct investment into the free zone and Ireland “has moved from a possibility to a probability” following the recent Irish visit of Chinese vice premier, Xi Jinping.
Dr Cunnane said: “We need to turn that shared heritage into economic benefit for this region; jobs in the free zone, Chinese investment in the free zone. I’m talking a major Chinese trade centre in the free zone.”
He said Shannon Development’s special relationship with the Chinese Government has helped the agency “to separate ourselves from a chasing pack seeking Chinese investment. It has put us and Ireland to the forefront of that”.
Today more than 40m Chinese are employed in hundreds of special economic zones across China and Dr Cunnane said the zones are based on the Chinese copying the Shannon Free Zone template where 7,000 people are employed.
He said the zones were created following then Chinese future premier, Jiang Zemin leading a delegation to the Shannon Free Zone in 1980.
At a meeting with Chinese vice premier Jinping and his colleagues in Shannon last month, Dr Cunnane said the “iconic photo” from that 1980 visit was produced during a power-point presentation “and the room erupted”.
“It is an iconic picture in Chinese economic history. The free zone was the first of its kind in the modern era globally and the model has allowed China become the manufacturing powerhouse in the world and has been hugely successful. At the time, China was a closed, agricultural society and the beauty of the free zone model was that it allowed the Chinese set up these islands of economic activity”.
Dr Cunnane said two Chinese premiers and two vice premiers have followed in the footsteps of Jiang Zemin to Shannon before the recent visit of Xi Jinping.
He said China’s relationship with Shannon Development “is not understood in Ireland, but hugely understood in China at the highest echelons. We haven’t been able to capitalise on this relationship in terms of jobs here, because China hasn’t been in a position to make these overseas investments.
“We have to get an Ireland Inc response to the Shannon opportunity. It needs alignment of Government; alignment of agencies. It needs a clear strategy to get that Chinese investment coming in.”
Dr Cunnane — who will be part of a Government-led trade delegation to China in June — said China is now cash rich and looking to expand overseas.
“The next wave of Chinese overseas investment needs to be Shannon and Ireland focused. It is a medium-term plan.
“It is not going to happen today or tomorrow. It is going to happen over the next five years.”
He said Shannon Development’s relationship with China “may be one of the most important things” in the agency’s 53-year history.
“From the Government’s point of view, the department’s point of view, they had to sit up again and say ‘fair play, there is something special here’.”