How are America and Switzerland the same?

Four federal councilors are planning visits to China while the confrontation between the West and Beijing is coming to a head

Switzerland is trying the balancing act between the USA, the EU and China. Several members of the government want to travel to China this year. Parliamentarians see the priorities set incorrectly.

Anyone who criticizes Beijing must expect violent reactions. Even the carefully formulated new China strategy of the Federal Council caught the Middle Kingdom on the wrong foot. But the USA and the EU are also closely monitoring how Bern positions itself in the face of growing tensions. The latest example shows how delicate the situation is: Switzerland refused to sign an American statement criticizing the World Health Organization (WHO) final report on the origin of the corona pandemic.

In the midst of the tense geopolitical situation, it is now clear how high Beijing is still on Bern's list of priorities. According to research by the NZZ, four federal councilors plan to travel to China this year. Federal President Guy Parmelin (svp.) Would like to catch up on the economic mission, which he had to cancel in 2020. This should already be done in the current month, but this was not possible.

Difficult entry

Extremely restrictive conditions still apply to entry into China, which include a two-week quarantine. A final decision is still pending, says a spokesman for Parmelins. The Federal President is waiting, as a business and science delegation would hardly be possible this year either. Business representatives hope that travel will soon be made easier for people who have already been vaccinated.

Federal Councilor Ignazio Cassis (fdp.) Is also planning a visit to China this year. The foreign ministers of the two countries would meet annually as part of the strategic dialogue, says a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA). This should take place in Beijing in 2021. Finance Minister Ueli Maurer (svp.) Is also drawn to the Middle Kingdom. Every two years he visited the country with a finance or business delegation, most recently in 2019. In the current year, a visit to China is conceivable because maintaining contacts is important, says a spokesman for Maurers.

Whether the Federal Council can travel to China is still unclear due to the framework conditions. The situation is similar with the Environment and Transport Minister Simonetta Sommaruga (sp.). The summit for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is to take place in Kunming, China, in autumn. A spokeswoman for Sommarugas says that the decisive course for species protection should be set there. Whether the conference will take place physically or virtually and the Federal Councilor will be able to attend is open.

Sommaruga's visit would be a special case as it is a multilateral meeting. Nevertheless, the state government sends out signals with its travel plans that are also being registered in the western capitals. According to reports, on the other hand, no Federal Council is planning a visit to the USA for the time being. Because of the China course, Bern comes under increasing pressure to explain to the administration of Joe Biden.

And this is likely to increase over the next few months. The Federal Council is facing a delicate decision that has a different dimension than the dispute over the WHO paper. The federal administration is examining whether Bern should join the human rights sanctions that the EU has taken to repression of the Uyghurs against China. In contrast to the sanctions imposed by the UN, it does not have to do this.

In previous cases, however, Switzerland generally followed Brussels, albeit with a delay or in a modified form. After Russia annexed Crimea, the federal government opted for a middle ground: It took measures to prevent the EU and US sanctions from being circumvented through Switzerland.

But China, as the third most important trading partner and strategic partner, has a different weight than Russia or Iran. Neutral Switzerland risks messing with one side or the other when it comes to sanctions. Beijing's ban is likely to hit them even if the federal government takes “merely” measures to circumvent Western sanctions. On the other hand, if the latter does not take any steps, it will be badly received in Washington and Brussels. Non-EU members such as Great Britain and Norway have also taken sanctions against China or have joined the measures of the EU.

Questionable timing

The fact that federal councilors in China want to hand over the handle has met with criticism in parliament. "It is the worst conceivable time to want to expand political and economic relations with Beijing," says the SP foreign politician and Zurich National Councilor Fabian Molina. Foreign Minister Cassis, for example, has never traveled to Brussels since taking office. In addition, Switzerland is thereby sabotaging the efforts of like-minded states to ensure that Beijing respects the international legal order. This has never been under so much pressure in the last ten years.

Center President Gerhard Pfister, whose party has long been pleading for a tougher line towards Beijing, is also critical. "Switzerland would have to cultivate relations with the USA and the Biden administration with the same intensity with which it cares about China." Bern should not cuddle up to Beijing for the sake of doing business, but should pursue a realistic and self-confident course. For Pfister, this also means that Switzerland does not undermine the western sanctions against China.

A spokeswoman for the FDFA says that Bern maintains bilateral relations with Beijing and Washington. The numerous contacts in recent years have shown that Switzerland has not neglected its relationship with the USA. However, the meetings took place with the administration of Donald Trump and not with the incumbent administration. Foreign Minister Cassis is likely to travel to Brussels with Federal President Guy Parmelin this month to meet EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Bern is still hoping for concessions in the framework agreement.

As part of its new China strategy, the Federal Council also wants to create a coordination committee between the departments to coordinate the different approaches in China policy. A spokeswoman for the FDFA says that travel planning is already part of the discussions among government members.

More comprehensive EU sanctions regime

The federal government is only cautious about the issue of sanctions. The language regulation of the lead economic department is that the adoption of the thematic human rights sanctions of the EU within the framework of the embargo law will be discussed within the federal government.

If Switzerland were to bring about a takeover, it would be breaking new ground. It was only in 2020 that the EU created the basis for global sanctions in the area of ​​human rights. In this context, it not only took measures against Beijing in March, but also sanctioned Russia, North Korea, Libya, Eritrea and South Sudan for human rights violations.

The thematic sanctions are more extensive than measures that are specifically directed against a state like China. How Switzerland intends to deal with this development is also a sensitive question from a fundamental point of view. So far, the federal government has decided on a case-by-case basis whether to join the EU sanctions or to adopt measures to avoid circumventing them.