Call it the Celtic Dragon, but Chinese companies are set to invest billions in Ireland in an attempt to gain a foothold in Europe.

Distressed countries such as Ireland and Greece are being targeted by the Chinese to begin a major expansion like what they did in Africa in recent decades.

It begins next month when a group of Chinese investors hope to green light a $60 million investment in Athlone in Westmeath involving a "Chinese hub: of companies.

Prime Minster Brian Cowen has confirmed  that he has met with the Chinese consortium and given his support to the project

"It's about exploring the potential of this idea and I have met with some of the promoters to see if we can proceed with it," he told the Irish Independent newspaper.

Local newspapers have dubbed the project "Bejing on the Shannon"

The plan involves bringing  2,000 Chinese workers to build a "Chinese hub" of factories on a 600-acre plot  of land outside Athlone.

If built the hub will eventually employ 8,000 Irish staff. It  is understood a new school, a railway station and hundreds of factory units and apartments would also be built.

In return the Chinese would get access to the lowest corporation tax rates in Europe and access  to the euro zone for their products. Tariffs and quotas imposed by the EU and individual countries would be bypassed.

The Chinese are also focused on investment opportunities in Greece, another European country undergoing very hard times.

Ireland is seeking new ways to build on its reputation for supporting hi-tech foreign manufacturers such as Intel, and Chinese investment is high on the list.