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Swiss-China relations: testing times lie ahead

Beijing’s reaction to Switzerland’s new China strategy is symptomatic for deteriorating Europe-China relations, says Tashi Götzmann. Bilateral relations have to mature.

Switzerland has long been a pioneer of European economic cooperation with China. The countries forged a free trade agreement in 2014, for example, and are pursuing bilateral talks on expanding financial market cooperation. Indeed, Switzerland has come to serve as China’s reliable proxy to test the viability of new forms of economic involvement with all of Europe. But recently even Swiss-China relations appear to have followed the disheartening pattern familiar from China’s confrontations with other European countries. The Bern-Beijing strains signal that testing times lie ahead for European relations with China.

Although the governments of Switzerland and China have continually expanded economic cooperation, Swiss public debate has followed the European trend of questioning systemic differences with China. Beijing’s treatment of minorities and human rights has occupied Swiss citizens as much as their EU neighbors. The Covid-19 pandemic only intensified their dissatisfaction with the Swiss government’s stance towards China. It was only a matter of time before Switzerland’s political leaders had to stop avoiding these issues and take a stand.  

The Swiss “China Strategy”: squaring lucrative economic relations with hardening public attitudes

The Swiss Federal Council in March published its first “China Strategy” (for 2021-2024). While the document emphasized economic and innovation cooperation, and China’s role as a key strategic partner, it also addressed the country’s human rights situation and its treatment of minorities. The Swiss government announced it planned to seek a dialogue with China to stress the importance of those issues. It was an attempt to square a constructive and lucrative economic relationship with China with hardening public attitudes.

Understandably, the Swiss public was not excited by the toothless rhetoric of a government trying to play both sides – Green Party politicians voiced their disappointment very clearly. More surprisingly, China’s pushback was extremely swift and harsh: Its ambassador in Bern, Wang Shiting, said Switzerland’s China strategy was full of “evil labeling;” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized Swiss “megaphone diplomacy;” media outlets like the Global Times and China Daily rebuked the country for “defamation” of China and its citizens.  

Overall, Bern’s stance on China is far less confrontational than Washington’s or Brussel’s 

Given that Switzerland is one of China’s closest partners in Europe and that the two countries are negotiating even deeper ties through more financial market cooperation, this response could even be seen as disproportionate. The Swiss strategy paper did not threaten China with any concrete measures besides looking to engage in dialogue and negotiations. Indeed, it mapped out more economic cooperation, a policy item that China did not attack. Bern´s stance overall was far less confrontational than those of Brussels or Washington. 

It could still be that the Swiss-Sino relations will fall into a two-track groove – a more critical dialogue at political and unbroken cooperation at economic level. That would allow the Swiss government to openly talk about problems and take a stand for European values without having to fear lasting damage to economic relations. But Beijing’s zero-tolerance approach to outside criticism has provoked the Swiss public’s anger and made the Swiss government’s diplomatic contortions in the face of China much more difficult to maintain.

Beijing’s uncompromising pushback has hardened Swiss public opinion and expectations of Bern. This could put pressure on Swiss officials to make more critical remarks about China, quite possibly setting off a spiral of aggressive rhetoric. Despite these domestic tensions, the Swiss government has refused calls to rework the country’s free trade deal with China and pursued a relatively muted stance on human rights. How long Bern can maintain this position in the face of pressure at home is an open question. China has polarized the political debate in Switzerland and bilateral relations now stand at a crossroads.  

Next election might bring about radical changes to Swiss China policy 

Beijing faces a real risk that the next Swiss election could radically change Bern’s official stance towards China. If it wants to continue Sino-Swiss economic cooperation, it has to strive for a more balanced approach to relations. They must rest on the firm understanding that they are useful to both sides. Economic and innovation cooperation can build the backbone of Sino-Swiss relations. But both governments need to be more circumspect about the other side’s domestic political pressures – and be prepared to factor them in.  

That means the Swiss government will have to balance between economic opportunity and political pushback towards China while contending with the demands of more aggressive voices at home. Beijing for its part needs to acknowledge that its hawkish approach is only complicating things and react with more nuance to words from Bern. Switzerland as a pioneer and proxy for China-Europe relations has the tools to work towards a more mature relationship with China and to avoid the confrontational patterns emerging between Beijing and other European capitals. This task is a challenge, but if both sides allow the recent escalation to continue, they risk sacrificing what has been a strong and useful relationship. 

About the author:

Tashi Götzmann is an intern in the Economy program at MERICS. He holds a BA in China Studies from Berlin's Freie Universität and is currently pursuing a master's in Business and Economics focused on China at the University of Würzburg.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.