Swiss business pushing for more access to Chinese markets
A delegation of Swiss business leaders accompanied the president, Adolf Ogi, on a three-day visit to China. They were hoping to persuade Beijing to open its markets to Swiss companies.
Led by the State Secretary in the Economics Ministry, David Syz, the 12 strong business delegation wanted to gain better access to China's markets for insurance and watches.
Their talks focused largely on Chinese membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which Switzerland - along with a handful of other countries - has yet to approve.
The Swiss were hoping to persuade Beijing to sink import tariffs on Swiss watches and to grant four licences to sell insurance in China.
No concrete decisions are expected before the next round of WTO talks in Geneva, which begin next week.
The Swiss delegation has pronounced itself satisfied with the talks so far. One delegate, Alexandre Jetzer of Novartis, said talks were "proceeding slowly, but proceeding".
David Syz would only say that the Chinese had "laid their problems on the table", and that he was happy with how talks were proceeding.
The year 2000 marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and China, and it is also the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Economic ties between the two countries have a long tradition - various Swiss companies established business links with China more than 100 years ago, and the Swiss were among the first to invest in China, when it began to open its economy after the Mao era.
From a relatively low level, trade and investments took off in the 1980s and increased dramatically in the 1990s.
Last year, Swiss trade with China reached SFr2.8 billion. Roughly a third was accounted for by Swiss exports to China, with imports amounting to SFr1.8 billion.
Bilateral trade continued to grow in the first six months of 2000 with exports to China up 43 per cent compared to the same period last year, and imports up 33 per cent.
China mainly imports machinery, electronics, and chemical and pharmaceutical products, while exporting primary products and raw materials to Switzerland.
In recent years, though, China has been exporting an increasing amount of manufactured goods, including textiles, machinery electronics and chemical products.
Switzerland began to invest in China in 1982. The first Sino-Swiss joint venture approved by China was for the Schindler Lift Company (China).
The idea of founding a Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Commerce matured in early 1980 when the late Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms started to yield the first encouraging results.
The founding president of the Chamber and the former Swiss Ambassador to China, Uli Sigg, was instrumental in the negotiations for the first Sino-foreign industrial joint venture with Schindler.
"Although at that time, transferring money and new technologies to Chinese enterprises was considered foolish by most Western companies, I was convinced that many other Swiss companies would start planning investments in China," recalls Sigg.
In congratulating the Chamber on its 20th anniversary, Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, said Switzerland took a long-term view in its economic ties with China, adding that the creation of the Chamber was an "important milestone".
"What started as a far-sighted private initiative of a small group of interested Swiss entrepreneurs has developed into a very important pillar of the bilateral economic relations between the two countries," he said.
The Chamber - with 500 members in Switzerland and 200 in China - has chapters in Geneva and Lugano, as well as partner organisations in Beijing and Shanghai.
Its vice-president, Paul Wyss, says there are still business opportunities to be seized in China.
"Of course the big multinationals are there, starting from A for ABB to Z for Zurich Insurance but there are still specialised Swiss companies with high-tech products considering an entry into China," he told swissinfo.
"With the lowering of import tariffs under the World Trade Organisation, new possibilities are arising for import-export trade," he added.
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