South China Morning Post - 15 January 2024
China and Switzerland to revive push to upgrade free-trade agreement
By Zhao Ziwen and Liu Zhen
- Announcement comes after Chinese Premier Li Qiang holds talks with Swiss President Viola Amherd on train to Bern during official visit
- Swiss nationals to gain visa-free entry to China while Swiss visa process for Chinese citizens will be streamlined
China and Switzerland will start talks to upgrade their free-trade agreement, Chinese Premier Li Qiang announced in Bern on Monday, as he opened his 2024 diplomatic calendar with an official visit to the Alpine nation.
“The two sides announced the completion of the joint feasibility study on the upgrading of the China-Sweden FTA and agreed to support the launch of formal upgrading negotiations as soon as possible,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement after a meeting between Li and Swiss President Viola Amherd.
China will also unilaterally grant Swiss nationals visa-free entry, it said, adding Switzerland agreed to streamline the visa process for Chinese citizens and Chinese investors.
“China is willing to … accelerate the restart of exchanges at all levels and in all fields,” Li said.
China and Switzerland signed an FTA in 2013 and it took effect in 2014, becoming Beijing’s first such deal with an economy in continental Europe. The two sides began a joint study in 2017 to explore the possibility of upgrading the FTA.
But preliminary talks were reportedly “frozen” in mid-2022 when Bern took a more critical stand on Beijing’s human rights records.
Li and Amherd also agreed to hold a new round of strategic dialogue between foreign ministers this year, as well as hold meetings on finance, energy, education policy, and United Nation Security Council affairs.
Li said the two countries should explore greater convergence of interests, strengthen cooperation in areas such as free trade and customs, cultivate cooperation in green, financial and digital economies. Financing for connectivity infrastructure, international development aid, and climate change measures were also named as priority areas for cooperation.
“I hope that the Swiss side will continue to provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese enterprises in Switzerland,” Li said.
Travelling with Swiss President Viola Amherd on a special train from Zurich to the capital Bern on Sunday, Li also highlighted the long history of mutually beneficial exchanges as the countries prepare to mark 75 years of diplomatic ties next year.
“As one of the first Western countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China, the two countries enjoy a long history of friendly cooperation,” he said.
“At present, China is advancing ‘Chinese modernisation’ … [and] is ready to enhance mutual exchanges and learning with Switzerland,” Li was quoted by Chinese state news agency Xinhua as saying.
The premier, who also oversees the Chinese economy, highlighted Switzerland’s innovative capacity and high-quality products as he urged more Swiss enterprises to invest in China, while pledging that his country would “only open its doors wider and wider” to the world.
Li arrived in Zurich earlier on Sunday and was received at the airport by Amherd, who in addition to holding this year’s rotating Swiss presidency, is also defence minister.
He will be joining world leaders at the annual World Economic Forum in the Swiss town of Davos this week. An official visit to Ireland next will round out his four-day European trip.
According to Xinhua, Amherd said Swiss companies were willing to deepen their presence in China. She also echoed a call by Li to promote mutual understanding, friendship and people-to-people exchanges.
China was Switzerland’s fourth-largest individual trading partner in 2021, after Germany, the United States and Italy, though the European Union as a whole accounted for nearly 58 per cent of Swiss trade.
Switzerland also remains one of the most welcoming Western countries for hi-tech companies from China, while the US leads a drive to hobble Chinese access to cutting-edge technology on alleged security concerns.
Major Chinese investors in Switzerland include tech firms Huawei and Neusoft, while Swiss investors in China include technology company ABB, food giant Nestle, and healthcare company Roche.
Switzerland, which has a policy of military neutrality, has also tried to keep its distance from the EU in terms of China policy amid growing tensions between Brussels and Beijing.
In 2022, Bern chose not to follow Brussels in sanctioning Chinese Community Party officials and organisations over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, after Chinese ambassador Wang Shiting warned that such a move could hurt relations with Switzerland.
In its first China foreign policy strategy issued in 2021, the Swiss government said its aim was to create “greater coherence” in its relations with Beijing, even if there were “clear differences in values between the two”.
Highlighting Switzerland’s “independent policy on China”, the document said China was a “priority country for its foreign policy”, adding that Bern “advocates the inclusion of China in the liberal international order and in efforts to overcome global challenges”.
It also said “human rights must be broached consistently in all bilateral and multilateral settings”. Human rights dialogue and trade interests were the two key issues for bilateral relations, media reports quoted Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis as saying.
The 2021 strategy expires this year, as the rift between China and the West is growing wider.
The Swiss parliament has been discussing reducing dependency on Beijing, such as excluding Huawei from the 5G network, and increasing channels with Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a part of China to be reunited by force if necessary.
Switzerland, like most Western countries including the US, does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state.