The Northern Ireland Executive may open a bureau in Beijing to boost links with China and its powerhouse economy, it has emerged.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness revealed the plans to the Assembly yesterday during an account of a recent visit with the First Minister.
He said their trip, at the invitation of Vice-Premier Madam Liu Yandong after her visit to the province last year, would leave the Chinese authorities "in no doubt as to our commitment to building and maintaining a strong relationship".
The possibility of having a bureau in Beijing would be discussed with Executive colleagues, and would be similar to existing bureaux in Brussels and Washington.
"Given that it is accepted that China is an economic powerhouse and will probably, in a few years' time, be the largest economy in the world, it would be absolutely remiss of us not to consider the opportunity of having a similar establishment – ie, a bureau – in Beijing," Mr McGuinness said.
And he defended the visit in response to media coverage suggesting ministers took unnecessary – and expensive – trips abroad. "If you don't go there you don't count and when we were there it was quite obvious there was a massive focus from Europe on getting into China and getting a foothold," he said.
Businesses had reported having ministerial support was helping them get taken "much more seriously" in territories such as China.
He said there was also discussion about reaching out to form links with other parts of China.
The province was exporting to China and had sent goods and services worth £230m over the past two years – but the Deputy First Minister said the Executive wanted to "dramatically increase" those exports.
"China spends £50trn on importing goods and services so we are determined to increase our share of the market," he said.
There could be an increase in exports of agri-food, food safety, animal husbandry, software, engineering and services. But Mr McGuinness said China's high standards for food imports would need to be researched.
Tourism was another potential area for growth.
"There are also 80m Chinese tourists travelling abroad every year and we need to get more visiting here. We have to be more creative about awareness and promoting our brand," he said.
"The Titanic brand is huge in China and not a lot of people in China would know that the Titanic was built in Belfast."