Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA

A balanced, coherent and coordinated approach to China

China has developed rapidly in recent decades. Relations between Switzerland and China are becoming closer all the time, but this also means that differing values are coming to light more frequently and more clearly than before. The number of actors in Switzerland who maintain contact with China is also rising. In light of this, the Federal Council adopted a new strategy for China at its meeting on 19 March. The strategy was drafted in a process that involved all government departments.

19.03.2021
An aerial view of the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing.

Switzerland cooperates with China in the areas of finance, science, culture and architecture, such as the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing. © Keystone

China is the world's second-largest national economy and the only large nation to have escaped a recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In just a few decades, its development model and disciplined economic policies have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, allowing China to position itself as an exemplar in global efforts to eradicate poverty. Already a pacesetter in industries from robotics to AI, China is on the path to become a global leader in key technologies including green tech.

Switzerland has a 70-year history of close cooperation with the People's Republic of China (PRC). In 1950, Switzerland was one of the first European states to recognise the PRC. This first step developed into a relationship of reciprocity – and mutual respect for political, social and economic differences – between our two nations. Today, Swiss-China relations can build on a free trade agreement, an innovative strategic partnership, and dozens of channels for dialogue. As Switzerland and China become increasingly connected, some areas of Swiss-China relations have become more complicated in recent years. Differing values are coming to light more frequently and more clearly than before. However, constructively critical dialogue has always formed the basis of the solid and extensive bilateral framework that Switzerland and China enjoy today.

Coherence is the crucial challenge

Policy coherence is a challenge when it comes to China. China is Switzerland's third-largest trading partner worldwide, and its main trading partner in Asia. In a short time, the PRC's economic and political power has grown rapidly, and this is reflected in far-reaching geopolitical aspirations. But China's growing economic influence is accompanied by aspects that are more difficult to accept. In response to China's authoritarian turn in its domestic policy, Switzerland will continue to defend the fundamental values that underpin its foreign policy. Its commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights and a liberal international order remains central in this respect. As Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis concludes in his foreword: "Pioneering spirit and pragmatism, in addition to a strong stance in the defence of Swiss interests and values, have moulded Switzerland's policy on China for seventy years. They will continue to do so."

Where China specifically is concerned, this may mean that our country faces conflicting objectives. Such conflicts are inherent in all policymaking, however, especially in foreign affairs. They reflect a pluralist political system and close integration of foreign and domestic policy, and must be addressed and resolved transparently. 

Pioneering spirit and pragmatism, in addition to a strong stance in the defence of Swiss interests and values, have moulded Switzerland's policy on China for seventy years. They will continue to do so.
Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor

Coherence is becoming increasingly important, especially given the steady rise in the number of actors in Switzerland who maintain contact with China. The newly drafted China Strategy 2021–24 is the product of a participative process that involved all of the departments of the Federal Administration. It provides a cross-sectoral operational framework for the next four years.

Three principles for cooperation

China has been investing heavily in education, research and innovation for years and shares a great deal of knowledge in fields including finance, science, culture and environmental protection. It is in these areas especially that Switzerland wishes to cooperate with the PRC, which is listed as a priority country in Switzerland's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23 (FPS 2020–23). Three fundamental principles underpin Switzerland's cooperation with China. These apply to bilateral relations, multilateral cooperation and coordination in Switzerland

Firstly, Switzerland wishes to pursue an independent policy on China and defend its long-term interests and fundamental values. It will seek to do this through constructively critical dialogue with Chinese representatives in the diverse areas of Swiss–China relations where there is an opportunity to engage on these issues.

The Federal Council advocates the integration of China in the liberal international order and will seek to coordinate more closely with like-minded partners.

Finally, it pursues a balanced, coherent and coordinated approach to China that encourages exchanges with Parliament, the cantons, academia, the private sector and civil society.

As a neutral state, Switzerland sees itself as a bridge-builder. It remains committed to upholding international law and rules-based multilateral cooperation.
Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor

To promote its ideas and interests, Switzerland makes use of an extensive network. In addition to diplomatic representations – an embassy in Beijing and four consulates general – this includes the offices of swissnex, Switzerland Tourism, the SDC and a Swiss Business Hub in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. For Cassis, this extensive network demonstrates the extent to which Switzerland remains committed to cooperation and dialogue: "As a neutral state, Switzerland sees itself as a bridge-builder. It remains committed to upholding international law and rules-based multilateral cooperation. "

Thematic focuses of the China Strategy

China plays a central role globally with regard to the four thematic focus areas of Switzerland's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23: peace and security, prosperity, sustainable development and digitalisation.

Peace and security

Switzerland is prioritising several strategic aspects of peace and security in its relations with China. With regard to international security, Switzerland seeks to maintain relations and promote constructive dialogue with all major geopolitical actors. Affected both directly and indirectly by geostrategic tensions and rivalries, Switzerland wants to avoid any arms race, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. It advocates in favour of disarmament and compliance with international law.

From the perspective of internal security, Switzerland intends to protect its sovereignty, also in the digital space, and prevent cyber espionage, data leakage and interference attempts. As a host state to international organisations and as a mediator in international conflicts, Switzerland will guard against external pressures.

Finally, on human rights, Switzerland wishes to ensure that individuals’ fundamental rights are respected, especially freedom of expression and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. It prioritises dialogue as the most effective way to achieve this. Switzerland and China have maintained a bilateral dialogue on such issues since 1991.

Prosperity

It is important for Switzerland to seize the opportunities presented by China's economic opening. The Federal Council seeks non-discriminatory, mutually beneficial market-based access for goods, services and investments, in addition to protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights in China. The Federal Council will also seek to update the bilateral free trade agreement with China. The EU–China investment agreement will be analysed in depth. Maintaining close ties with China to promote progress in the fields of education, research, innovation and tourism is also an important part of Switzerland's strategy.

Sustainability

Both Switzerland and China have committed to the implementation of 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda, which provides the frame of reference for Switzerland's policies on sustainability at home and abroad. Achieving the goals will require continued discussions in the areas of environmental protection, economy and health. In China, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is focusing on the reduction of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change mitigation is one of the priorities of Switzerland's international cooperation.

Digitalisation

The key elements for the federal government's discussions with China in the area of digitalisation are informed by the new Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021–24. These include innovation, cybersecurity and digital governance – especially in regard to the development of 5G mobile technologies – and access to the digital market. Switzerland advocates for an intact digital space that is governed by the principles of international law. 

New cross-departmental coordinating body for China relations

A new cross-departmental coordinating body is to be created to ensure greater policy coherence. It will facilitate the sharing of information and experience among all federal bodies that deal with China. The Federal Council also welcomes exchange with and between stakeholders outside of the federal government that also play an important part in relations. These include cantonal and city authorities, business representatives and non-governmental organisations, as well as educational and research institutions including universities.

Global problems demand global solutions.  Switzerland is therefore also committed to constructive cooperation with China in international organisations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. China also has an important role to play in strengthening International Geneva's key role as a hub for multilateral discussions.

Complementary strategies for coherent foreign policy

  • In its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23, published at the end of January 2020, the Federal Council set out overall objectives informed by an analysis of the current global environment, and developments and trends likely to affect Switzerland in years to come.
  • For Switzerland to implement its foreign policy in a coordinated and coherent manner in all regions of the world, its strategies must complement each other. The Foreign Policy Strategy formulated the overall objectives and approach. The regional strategies – which include the China Strategy – apply these main tenets of Switzerland's foreign policy in the different parts of the world.
  • The regional strategies are complemented by thematic strategies, which set priorities in specific areas.  These include the International Cooperation Strategy, the Digital Foreign Policy Strategy and the Strategy for Communication Abroad.

More on Switzerland's foreign policy cascading strategy 

Questions & Answers on the Federal Council's China Strategy

Does the China Strategy mark a change in course?

No, the strategy represents a continuation of Switzerland's independent policy on China. It does, however, emphasise certain aspects.

In this strategy, the Federal Council has set out a series of principles, objectives and measures for its China policy for the first time. These are designed to strengthen coherence in Switzerland's relations with China. This is important because China's role in the world has changed and the US is no longer the only great power.

Switzerland's overall approach to China remains balanced, in line with our foreign policy. Switzerland is committed in its foreign policy to dialogue with all states, including China. It is not an either-or between business and human rights. The question is rather how to integrate the various issues and priorities in our relations with China into an overall framework.

Why does the strategy not formulate the objectives and measures in more detail?

The China strategy defines the principles, focus areas, objectives and measures of Swiss policy on China. These have never been set out in this way before.

Switzerland is using the strategy to establish a system of coordinates for its relations with China. The strategy does not anticipate individual future policy decisions, however. Some room for manoeuvre in regard to future policy must be maintained.

How 'independent' can Switzerland's China policy be, given the difference in size between the two countries? Wouldn't a joint strategy with the EU be more effective?

Independent means that Switzerland defines its own policy on China and wants to cooperate bilaterally with China, especially in areas where it is important for Switzerland to do so. The European Union is an important partner, however, as the China Strategy also makes clear.

What can Switzerland achieve by promoting human rights in China?

China is interested in understanding how Switzerland thinks and acts, politically, economically, and culturally. However, like the foreign policy of all other countries, China's foreign policy is interest-based, and China’s interests are not always congruent with ours, notably with regard to the human rights situation. For this reason, Switzerland has opted for a step-by-step approach. For instance, Switzerland is conducting an exchange with China between experts in the area of prison management, in a targeted attempt to improve the situation for prisoners in China.

Can Switzerland pursue economic interests vis-à-vis China while at the same time standing up for human rights there? Isn't that a contradiction?

Conflicting objectives may arise, but there is no inherent contradiction. Business is not detrimental to human rights per se; on the contrary, business must be part of the solution. Because without prosperity, people's basic needs, such as the right to food, cannot be met. For the Federal Council, however, it is clear that respect for all of the fundamental rights of the individual is and will remain an overriding principle.

What does the China Strategy say about China's influence in Switzerland?

Switzerland defends against foreign espionage and interference activities on Swiss soil.

However, not all activities by Chinese actors involve espionage or serve illegal purposes. The China Strategy therefore also aims to enable Switzerland to develop and expand its knowledge of China's political system, economy, society and culture.

What does the Federal Council say about the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)?

The Chinese initiative to build and expand intercontinental trade and infrastructure networks is a manifestation of today's globalised world. While the Federal Council welcomes the vision of the BRI, it adopts a cautious approach given that the initiative brings with it risks as well as opportunities. It is essential that international standards be respected, particularly in the areas of environmental protection, working conditions, human rights, the rule of law and transparency.

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