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Education accord signed with Chinese leaders

Micheline Calmy-Rey (right) tells Li Zhaoxing about the history and design of the Swiss flag

(Keystone)

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has signed bilateral accords on research and education with Chinese officials during talks in Beijing on Friday.

Calmy-Rey is at the start of a five-day visit to China to discuss Sino-Swiss relations and to open a new Swiss consulate in Guangzhou province, one of the country's most dynamic areas.

The education agreement signed during a meeting with the Chinese education minister, Zhou Ji, sets out new guidelines regulating the granting of scholarships and foresees the exchange of high-ranking delegations from universities and other educational institutes from both countries.

Earlier in the day, Calmy-Rey met her Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, who visited Switzerland in February. The content of the talks was not immediately known.

Switzerland and China have a long history of collaboration economically and politically – but they still disagree over human rights issues.

Despite the huge differences between the two countries in terms of size, economy and environment, Switzerland has always maintained cordial relations with Communist-run China.

Switzerland was one of the first western European countries to establish official relations with the country, recognising the People's Republic in 1950. It was also the first to carry out a joint business venture with a Chinese company.

The country was also indirectly involved in China becoming a member of the World Trade Organization as Swiss ambassador Pierre-Louis Girard led the negotiations.

Bern and Beijing have now agreed to follow the bilateral route. This was confirmed by Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger who earlier this year said that he wanted to "further strengthen mutual ties".

Booming economy

The Swiss are most anxious not to miss out on the People's Republic's booming economy, whereas the Chinese are becoming increasingly interested in what the small, neutral alpine country has to offer.

Swiss exports to China, which has one of the world's fastest growing economies, have increased annually by 20 per cent and have more than doubled since 2002.

Direct investment by Switzerland in the country jumped by 12 per cent between 2003 and 2004.

This progress has been acknowledged by Beijing – two years ago it gave Switzerland its approved tourist destination rating, opening Switzerland to millions of Chinese tourists.

But there is still one area which is delicate – human rights. Since a dialogue was started in 1991, the two countries have reached some common ground in the domains of justice and prisons.

Tibet, however, remains a difficult issue. Chinese President Jiang Zemin on a state visit to Bern in 1999 gave former cabinet minister Ruth Dreifuss a dressing down following a pro-Tibetan rally outside parliament.

China also expressed its displeasure when the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, visited Switzerland last August. China does not recognise Tibet's claim for independence.

But signs that relations were thawing over human rights came earlier this year when Calmy-Rey affirmed during Li's February visit that discussions on the topic had been "without taboo".

swissinfo, Luigi Jorio with agencies

Key facts

China (without Hong Kong) is Switzerland's second strongest trading partner in Asia after Japan.
Swiss exports to China have risen from SFr415 million ($327 million) in 1990 to SFr3.1 billion (2004).
Chinese exports to Switzerland have risen from SFr418 million (1990) to SFr2.8 billion (2004).
Swiss direct investment in China (2004): $203 million.
There are around 300 Swiss companies operating in China.

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