The Federal Council’s “China Strategy”

Not a glorious chapter for neutral Switzerland

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

Great powers are not in the habit of stepping down quietly when other states scratch at the world domination they have accumulated over decades or centuries. This is demonstrated these days by the new American administration, which was also hailed on our continent by many media and other voices as a liberator from the “uncouth behaviour” of the previous government and its “decisions of a madman”. But Donald Trump’s bluster pales beside what Joe Biden and his team have already done to the two great powers in the East. The “welcoming speech” with which the US government received its invited Chinese guests lacked all decency and did not exactly present a positive image of “Western values” – especially in comparison to the high culture of receiving guests in Asia.
  What must be particularly disturbing for us Europeans, however, is the realisation that the majority of the politicians and media here do not distance themselves from the rude and, for world peace, frightening demonstrations of power by “gentle” Joe Biden and his advisors. Instead, they incessantly attack the Russian and Chinese governments who dare to stand up to them unequivocally: We will not let you divert us from our own path of how we want to move in our country and in the world – you first have to put your own house in order!
  It is one thing that Washington is doing everything to harness the NATO “partners” and the EU to its cart in the fight against its two most important rivals. It is also nothing new that Switzerland is being pressured by the USA and the EU to let itself be harnessed to their cart. But we citizens cannot accept the Federal Council buckling under and ignoring the principle of neutrality with its new “China strategy”. Equally disconcerting is the position of the Swiss mainstream media, which not only support this tendency that contravenes neutrality, but also incite the Federal Council to completely adopt the sanctions of Washington and Brussels.

Constructive cooperation between Switzerland and China for 70 years

On 19 March 2021, the Federal Council published its “China Strategy”.1 With this, the Federal Council is striving for better coordination between the many federal offices, the cantons, universities, companies and other organisations that have to do with China (Strategy, p. 3). Or is rather striving for better control over the doings of the individual agencies? After an overview and a geopolitical analysis, Chapter 3, “Switzerland and China”, begins by acknowledging the relationship between the two countries, which has been built up over 70 years and is appreciated by both sides: “Switzerland was one of the first Western countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1950. Since the beginning of the 1980s, bilateral relations with China have strengthened in all areas and reached a remarkable intensity. They cover different areas such as policy, human rights, economy, labour market and employment, science and technology, education, environment, migration and culture. Since 2010, China has been Switzerland’s most important trading partner in Asia. In 2005, the Federal Council identified China as one of today’s eight global priority countries for Switzerland’s foreign policy.” (Strategy, p. 15)
  According to the daily press, four Federal Councillors are planning trips to China this year – if this is possible due to the pandemic: President Guy Parmelin with a business and science delegation, Ignazio Cassis for the annual dialogue with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Ueli Maurer travels to Beijing every two years as head of the Finance Department, and Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga wants to take part in the summit on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming in autumn (see “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 12 April 2021). So, there is lively contact at the political, economic and cultural levels.
  Against the background of the good relations between the two states, it is all the more serious that the Federal Council’s China strategy also contains several statements that harm these relations without necessity. In doing so, the Federal Council deliberately departs from the path of neutrality.

Swiss interference in China’s internal affairs

In its “China Strategy”, the Federal Council on the one hand acknowledges China’s great achievement in the fight against poverty: “Hundreds of millions of people have been able to lift themselves out of poverty within a few decades. China is thus making a significant contribution to global poverty reduction”. (Strategy, p. 8) On the other hand, it clearly criticises the Chinese state system and various violations of human and minority rights. According to the strategy report China is a de facto one-party state led by the CCP, without separation of powers and with a state capitalist economic model. Digitalisation is also used to discipline the population (Strategy, p. 8). And: “The human rights situation in China has deteriorated”. This concerns in particular the rights of ethnic minorities (Uyghurs, Tibetans), but also greater restrictions on freedom of expression and the media and on democratic institutions in Hong Kong according to the Chinese Security Law of July 2020 (Strategy, p. 8). The Chinese Embassy in Bern rejected this criticism in its statement of 22 March, saying that Switzerland was sending the wrong signals to the outside world with its accusations and attacks on China’s political system, minority policy and human rights situation. This has a negative impact on the healthy development of relations between China and Switzerland.2
  The state system and the human rights policy of China and Switzerland are two different pairs of shoes, as the Chinese embassy also notes. However, this also applies to numerous other states. The Swiss principle of neutrality means that Switzerland has diplomatic relations with all states in the world and maintains them in such a way that it can make its voice heard as a universally respected and non-aligned state. By snubbing another state, we make cooperation more difficult and reduce the chances of Switzerland’s good offices. It is shameful that the Chinese embassy has to draw our attention to this.

Independent Swiss Foreign policy looks different

In its “China strategy”, the Federal Council repeatedly affirms that it wants to pursue an independent foreign policy, also with China, and it also declares that this is indispensable for the trustworthiness of neutral Switzerland – but it does not stick to it.

  • The proven principle: “The Swiss foreign policy will continue to be independent and universally oriented. Switzerland is neutral, does not belong to any bloc and is committed to dialogue with all states.” (Strategy, p. 20)
  • The kink: Switzerland must position itself “in the changing power structure” (Strategy, p. 13). And the Federal Council “positions” Switzerland, namely as an appendage of the EU: “European states and the EU itself often hold similar positions to Switzerland and remain its most important partners. Our values are often congruent. Regulated relations with the EU are becoming even more important in the current geopolitical situation, and closer coordination is also urgently needed on some global political issues.” (Strategy, p. 20; emphasis mw)

So the Federal Council is aiming for a common foreign policy with the EU?! In the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” it is replenished in this direction: the Federal Council’s China strategy is “cautious” and contains “mainly recommendations”, says editor Georg Häsler Sansano, but at least “cooperation with like-minded countries in the area of internal security” is to be strengthened. Häsler immediately interprets this according to his reading: “– in other words: Switzerland is part of the West in terms of security policy. In an interconnected world, stubborn solo actions create dangerous leaks.”3
  Unfortunately, it must be said, that Switzerland is in fact already far too integrated into the political-military blocs of the West, although our values are not at all “congruent”: The principle of neutrality is diametrically opposed to Switzerland’s integration into the security policy of the EU/NATO. It is intolerable that Swiss officers like Lieutenant Colonel Häsler Sansano should disregard the principle of neutrality.

  • The ideological background: China is contributing a lot to the development of numerous countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa with the infrastructure projects of its Belt-and-Road-Initiative, the Federal Council admits. But: China does not fit into the Western regulatory system of development finance and the management of the OECD, IMF and World Bank. Its activities are not “transparent” and some recipient countries have “become heavily financially dependent on China” (Strategy, p. 11).

It is of course annoying for the Wall Street and the City of London that many poorer states prefer to have their roads, railways and power lines financed by China rather than bow under the yoke of the IMF/World Bank debt management.

Back to the policy of neutrality – Resuming the human rights dialogue with China from equal to equal!

Since 1991, China and Switzerland have held a regular human rights dialogue, according to the “China Strategy”: “The confidential human rights dialogue provides a platform for addressing the human rights situation openly and critically. This includes in particular freedom of expression and minority rights, including in the Tibetan areas of China and in Xinjiang.” (Strategy, p. 19) At this, “concrete cooperation opportunities have also been explored”, for example the exchange of experts in the penitentiary system since 2003.
  Since 2018, however, China has now cancelled further planned talks, with reference to Switzerland's interference in internal affairs (Strategy, p. 19). In an interview, the Chinese ambassador in Bern, Wang Shihting, first notes the good successes of the dialogue: “Since 1991, China and Switzerland have held several rounds that have improved mutual understanding.” In the last two years, however, Switzerland had participated in anti-China statements in the Human Rights Council and in the UN on Xinjiang and Hong Kong, thus “severely damaging the atmosphere of the bilateral human rights dialogue”. Nevertheless, China remained open to the human rights dialogue with Switzerland.4
  Neutrality is the most important principle of Swiss foreign policy. According to annual surveys conducted by the ETH Zurich, 90 to 95 per cent of the Swiss population unswervingly adhere to the principle of neutrality. This includes not only non-participation in wars and military alliances, but also non-interference in the internal affairs of other states – and the renunciation of a seat on the UN Security Council. Only on this ground can Switzerland bring its good offices and cooperation with other nations into bloom.  •



1 Swiss Confederation. China Strategie 2021–2024 (China Strategy 2021-2024) of 19 March 2021 (cited: Strategy). https://www.eda.admin.ch/dam/eda/de/documents/publications/SchweizerischeAussenpolitik/Strategie_China_210319_DE.pdf
2 Statement by the spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Switzerland on the Federal Council’s “China Strategy” of 22 March 2021 ;(http://ch.china-embassy.org/ger/dssghd_2/t1863076.htm)
3 Häsler Sansano, Georg. “Ist die China-Strategie des Bundesrates bereits Makulatur?” (Is the Federal Council’s China Strategy already wastepaper?) In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 22 March 2021.
4 Birrer, Raphaela; Häfliger, Markus. Interview with China’s ambassador. “This is defamation, it contradicts the image of Switzerland”. In: Tages-Anzeiger of 22 March 2021

mw. Telegram from the then President of Swiss Confederation Max Petitpierre to Chinese President Mao Zedong dated 17 January 1950 (dodis.ch/8016). In response to the Chinese government’s letter of 4 October 1950, Switzerland declares its willingness to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. The President of the Swiss Confederation “takes this opportunity to express the wish that the excellent relations that have always existed between China and Switzerland may continue in the future.”

Neutrality “case-by-case”?

ev. There is agreement on the assessment of Guantánamo, but sanctions against responsible individuals or states? Nothing doing.
  Dick Marty, former member of the Council of States and member of the Council of Europe, explained: There were abductions by the US secret services, supported by European services, and torture – partly delegated to services of other states. Sanctions? Neither from the EU nor from Switzerland. Does one “defend” human rights today, by choice, at the command of the stronger one to whom one submits?
  How about integral neutrality as a principle? Without double standards.

New EU sanctions regime – not for neutral Switzerland!

mw. On 7 December 2020, the Council of the European Union (heads of states and governments of the 27 EU member states) adopted a sanctions regime to “target individuals, entities and bodies – including state and non-state actors – responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, no matter where they occurred”. These sanctions include, among others, a travel ban and the freezing of funds. “It will be for the Council, acting upon a proposal from a member state or from the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to establish, review and amend the sanctions list.”
  The acts to be punished by EU-wide sanctions include, in addition to relevant violations of mandatory international law, “arbitrary arrests or detentions” and “other human rights violations or abuses [...] where those violations or abuses are widespread, systematic or are otherwise of serious concern”. [emphasis mw]1
  How do the EU heads of state come to set themselves up as the supreme moral authority for the entire world? With this new regulation, the EU heads of state are opening the door to unilateral political decisions. For example, in the case of police operations against demonstrators – depending on the government that orders them. An attempt to push forward the bumpy road to a tighter political union? The EU sanctions list of 22 March 2021 looks rather mixed: It includes eleven individuals and four organisations from China, North Korea, Libya, Russia, South Sudan and Eritrea, plus four more Russians who were already sanctioned at the beginning of March (Council of the EU. Press release of 22 March 2021). In addition, there are the sanctions already imposed in 2020 against 88 individuals and 7 organisations in Belarus – “responsible for the ongoing violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists”, as well as against “prominent businessmen and companies benefitting from and/or supporting the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko.”2 Is it a “serious human rights violation” for a businessman to support his country’s elected government? And since when has a person’s “prominence” been a relevant criterion under criminal law?
  The whole thing really has nothing to do with Switzerland, does it? As far as the sanctions against people and organisations in Belarus are concerned, unfortunately it does. It is to be hoped that the Federal Council will not be carried away into sanctioning more people according to the EU list. Do we really need to remind him that Switzerland, as a neutral state, does not have to comply with sanctions imposed by the USA or the EU?



1 Council of the EU. “EU adopts a global human rights sanctions regime”. Press release of 7 December 2020
2 Council of the EU. “Belarus: EU imposes third round of sanctions over ongoing repression”. Press release of 17 December 2020

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