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opinion China visit exposes cracks in Swiss neutrality

swiss and chinese flags

The Swiss and Chinese flags flying during Maurer's visit this week.

(Keystone / Madoka Ikegami / Pool)

Swiss President Ueli Maurer’s recent visit to China shows the complexity of Switzerland’s neutrality in the face of current geopolitical realities.  

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Maurer recently spent seven days in China, part of the time attending the second Belt and Road Forum on international cooperation. He also signed a memorandum of understanding with China focusing on finance and trade and even had an official bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

To justify his attendance at the Forum that was shunned by the United States and India, Maurer said his attendance would be “supporting the contribution made by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to developing relations between Asia and Europe”. He also said that the Initiative, “when implemented smoothly, will bring many benefits to both the economic development and the well-being of people worldwide”.

Enthusiasm and anxiety 

In Europe, there has been enthusiasm in Italy for the BRI because of Chinese investment in the ports of Trieste and Genoa, and enthusiasm in Greece over Chinese investment in the port of Piraeus.   

But there is also tremendous global anxiety about growing Chinese influence. China’s extensive loans – especially to countries in Africa and Latin America – have been derided as “debt-trap diplomacy,” with the negative example of China taking over the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota when the government failed to repay its loan.

Daniel Warner is a Swiss-American political scientist and former Deputy to the Director, Graduate Institute, Geneva.

(Courtesy)

US absence and new neutrality 

US President Donald Trump did not join the 37 heads of state at the BRI summit. Nor were there any American representatives. “We will continue to raise concerns about opaque financing practices, poor governance, and disregard for internationally accepted norms and standards, which undermine many of the standards and principles that we rely upon to promote sustainable, inclusive development, and to maintain stability and a rules-based order,” said US State Department spokesman Robert Palladino in explaining the American absence. 

Does Maurer’s attendance at the Forum risk alienating the United States? (There is still no US Ambassador to International Organisations in Genevaexternal link). Does it raise questions about Swiss neutrality? 

An eminent Swiss jurist described his entire career in the Swiss government to me as being devoted to analysing the nuances of one word – neutrality. In this case, the expanding role of China and “Firstism” of Washington require a serious analysis of Switzerland’s position towards China and what it means for neutrality. Neutrality is an evolving concept. 

Pragmatic or risky? 

During President Xi Jinping’s first overseas trip in 2017, he visited the United Nations Office in Geneva and addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos. In his speeches, he praised multilateralism and re-asserted China’s interest in actively participating in global governance.  

Maurer’s trip can be seen as a pragmatic recognition of China’s growing importance. But, it does raise questions about Swiss neutrality and its role in promoting traditional liberal values. 

(In this recently published cartoon from Swiss cartoonist Patrick Chappatte, the Chinese president tells his Swiss counterpart, “We’re rolling out the Silk Road for you!”) 

Swiss soul searching 

Not everyone in Switzerland is happy with the government’s policy towards China. Financially, there is the obvious worry that China may acquire important Swiss enterprises. China already controls more than 80 Swiss companies with a total value of CHF46 billion ($46 billion). And there are concerns about the Chinese human rights situation.  

Many in Switzerland also remember the incident when pro-Tibetan protestors disrupted Chinese President Jang Zemin’s visit to Swiss parliament in 1999. And Geneva journalists certainly will not forget how they were barred from covering President Xi Jinping’s final speech during his January 2017 visit to the Swiss city, and that 1,600 UN staff were asked to vacate the Palais des Nations to prepare for the arrival of 200 members of a Chinese delegation and 800 invited guests.   

A prominent Swedish diplomat once described neutrality to me as simply, “the foreign policy of a small country surrounded by large neighbours”. But being neutral is not that simple. With rapid changes in global geopolitics, Swiss neutrality is no longer what it was in the immediate post-World War II era when it served as a reliable intermediary between the Soviet bloc and the West, highlighted by the Geneva Reagan/Gorbachev summit of 1985. 

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch. ​​​​​​​

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