Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping's visit to Ireland last month highlighted the way in which the impact of the international financial crisis is bringing about a change in the perception of China in Europe.
It is useful to go back four years, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, to see the difference. At that time, according to a poll in the Irish Times, a campaign for an Olympic boycott, promoted by figures from most Irish political parties, had the support of 43 per cent of Ireland's population – compared to 57 per cent favouring participation. In comparison, during Xi Jinping's visit, every major party and newspaper spoke in favour of closer links with China.
Taking another example, in early 2008, French President Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the 11th meeting of the EU-China summit was postponed because of Sarkozy's attacks on China, and the mayor of Paris was saying he would hang a banner outside his office denouncing China. In contrast, when President Hu Jintao visited France in November 2010, President Sarkozy did him the unusual honour of meeting him personally at the airport.
Trade between key European countries and China has advanced in the intervening period - Germany now exports more to China than the US. China's investments in Europe have moved beyond bond purchases to Chinese companies signing significant deals – particularly in infrastructure. China's Three Gorges Corp bought a 21 per cent stake in EDP-Energias de Portugal SA for $3.5 billion, and China Investment Corp, China's sovereign wealth fund, bought a 9 per cent stake in the holding company of the UK's Thames Water. In finance, in January the UK signed an agreement with the Chinese government for London to act as an offshore centre for RMB transactions.
What in most European countries has essentially become an all-party welcome for closer economic ties with China contrasts with the political atmosphere in the US. Vice-President Xi was treated respectfully by President Obama's administration during his US visit - although no major agreements were arrived at. But leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared he would designate China as a currency manipulator on his first day if elected president.
In contrast to Europe, the US has adopted a position blocking Chinese inward investment.