BRIAN COWEN’s decision to snub a trade mission to Shanghai in order to manage the medical cards crisis at home has not caused a rift with China, a cabinet minister has insisted.
Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe spent yesterday apologising for the Taoiseach’s absence as he deputised for him at a string of events in the rising superpower’s financial capital.
Despite the minister’s denials, a number of Irish and Chinese participants at the events said privately they felt embarrassed and slighted by Mr Cowen’s move to abandon the Shanghai part of the visit.
Mr O’Keeffe tried to put a brave face on the no show, insisting the Chinese government realised the Taoiseach was at home dealing with an “emergency”.
“Most people in politics will realise that emergency situations arise from time to time and they have been very accommodating, very understanding and quite satisfied that there is a genuine reason for the Taoiseach not being able to make the Shanghai leg.
“Of course I would prefer that the Taoiseach would be in a position to get the totality of the trip,” he said.
Mr Cowen finally arrives in Beijing later today for a meeting, planned for tomorrow, with the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Meanwhile, UCC is powering Ireland ahead of its western rivals in attracting lucrative numbers of Chinese students, it emerged.
Mr O’Keeffe praised the dynamic way UCC and Dublin universities had targeted links with Shanghai as he led a huge trade delegation to the city.
UCC president Dr Michael Murphy attended ceremonies at Shanghai University’s Confucius centre to cement links between the two institutions.
Exchanges will see 30 students from UCC spend one year’s study at Shanghai’s UCC Confucius Institute, while 300 Chinese students go to Cork to study next year.
“Chinese students are a huge financial commodity for UCC and for Cork,” said Dr Murphy.
Mr O’Keeffe praised the depth of communication between Cork and Shanghai. “During my visit to Shanghai, I have been struck by the extent of co-operation and collaboration which is already taking place between institutions in our two countries.
“Over 30 Irish education institutions have partnerships with institutions in China and Chinese students now comprise the second largest group of international students in Ireland, just after the US,” he said.
Mr O’Keeffe, standing in for Mr Cowen, also tried to pump up Ireland’s tourism effort in Shanghai. The minister hosted a lavish reception in Shanghai at which he invoked the names of Enya and Westlife as reasons for the Chinese to visit Ireland.
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