By Lorraine Turner and Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's reputation as a technology hub is a big draw for China, the Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping said at the end of a three-day visit, his only European Union stop on a world tour.
Speaking at an investment forum Monday with some 350 companies, Xi said Ireland's history, scenery and culture had impressed the Chinese people.
But he made clear the country's clout in hi-tech and emerging industries, largely due to a low corporation tax rate that has lured Silicon Valley heavyweights, was a key factor.
"Ireland is strong in software development, ICT and biotech medicines and other hi-tech industries...We give top priority to the new generation of IT and bio-tech," Xi told delegates via a translator Monday, adding it would be the priority for future trade between the two countries.
"Ireland is a country that is strong in trade and services and this bodes well for our co-operation," he added.
One delegate said the visit from China's future leader, who signed two trade and investment agreements with Ireland, was driven by the Asian country's demand for new technologies thanks to its increasingly sophisticated population.
"They are hungry for technologies, things are changing so fast. Ireland is such a small country but we have lot of small and medium businesses with great technologies," said Jo Cheng, head of analytics at Dublin-based Idiro Technologies, which she noted, had been approached by two Chinese companies in recent months for the first time.
"Ireland is the (European) headquarters of so many massive technology companies like Google, Facebook, eBay. There is a reason why they're here," said Cheng, a Chinese national living in Ireland.
Xi, whose trip began in the United States last week, arrived in Dublin Sunday from the west of Ireland, where he toured the picturesque Cliffs of Moher and a dairy farm.
Ireland's national sports - Gaelic football and hurling - won an unlikely new audience when pictures of China's vice president kicking a football were beamed to Beijing from Ireland.
"He showed some admirable skills for his first time kicking on what is ... a very holy turf for us," said Alan Milton, a spokesman at the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
Xi was given a personal demonstration of both at the empty 80,000-seater Croke Park, Ireland's largest stadium and the scene of a massacre of footballers and fans by British troops during its fight for independence almost a century ago.
His fascination with Ireland dates back to his first trip to Dublin in 2003 when he was a provincial party secretary, and he was introduced to the two sports by Ireland's then-president Mary McAleese in Beijing two years ago.
"I recall my first visit to this country in 2003. At that time one Irish person I met said to me an Irish saying that is good things often come in small packages and that person said that is us, that is Ireland. We believe Ireland has so many good things to offer," said Xi Sunday evening.
Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who will visit China next month with a trade delegation, added that the countries had a lot to offer each other, despite the differences in size.
"It is not simply a question of whether a country is large or small, east or west. Rather, it is a matter of knowing your strengths, and how you exercise them," he said.
Xi, who visited the United States last week and moves on to Turkey Tuesday, began his Irish stay at a high tech zone near Shannon airport that inspired the building of a similar zone in Shenzhen, the pilot project of former leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms.
He also pledged China's continued support Monday for Europe, battling a widespread debt crisis, and Ireland, which is hoping to exit a bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund on schedule next year.
"The world economic recovery remains an uphill struggle. It is all the more the urgent for countries around the world to enhance mutual trust and co-operation to meet challenges together," said Xi.
"China will continue in a responsible way within its capabilities to support the efforts of the EU, IMF and ECB (European Central Bank) to address European debt problems."
Beijing has followed with interest Ireland's transformation from a developing farming economy to one that attracted international technology and drug companies, and is now showing first signs of rebounding from an economic crash.
Ireland hopes to make the most of Xi's three-day visit to promote exports of anything from IT services to dairy products, as well as inward investment.
"The visit to Ireland by Vice President Xi is hugely significant in terms of Ireland's export-led recovery. China is a priority market for Enterprise Ireland," said Frank Ryan, the CEO of Enterprise Ireland Monday.
A deal to import pears from north-western China was sealed Monday for one Irish company that distributes fruit and vegetables to Ireland and other European markets.
"The growth potential (in China) is huge," said Caroline Keeling, Managing Director at the company, Keelings. "(And) I think the Irish have a skill of getting on with other cultures."
The head of Irish mobile technology firm ezetop, which recently signed a deal with China Unicom, added that Ireland's low corporation tax rate environment as well as the availability of skills helped Ireland secure the prominent visit.
"The Vice President recognizes that Ireland is at a pivotal position in Europe, it is English-speaking, a very good corporate tax rate environment, and availability of skills and talent. Those factors mean it's a great launch-pad for entering Europe. And also to expand further into the U.S.," said ezetop chairman Mark Roden.
"He saw an opportunity for building strong relationships with Irish companies and let's face it, we need them probably more than some of the English companies."
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Lorraine Turner; editing by Philippa Fletcher)