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Swiss head east to boost economic ties with China

The second stop on the Swiss delegation's trip to China is Shanghai

(Keystone Archive)

A Swiss delegation of leaders from the twin worlds of business and science is in China to boost ties with the country.

The aim of the mission - headed by the number two at the Swiss economics ministry, David Syz - is to foster increased cooperation with scientific and business communities in China.

"It's not only an economic mission, but it will also show off our interest in research and science," Syz told swissinfo.

"We want to present ourselves as partners in all these fields of activity," he added.

A key aim is to woo Chinese doctoral students to Switzerland, according to Charles Kleiber, the government's head of science, who is part of the delegation. He told swissinfo that most Chinese scientists who go abroad head for the United States and that Switzerland was hoping to attract more in the future.

The Swiss delegation is travelling first to the Chinese capital, Beijing, before moving on to Shanghai. In both cities it is seeking to establish contacts with research institutes at Chinese universities.

"We will also have direct contact with companies and we hope for quite specific results," said Syz.

Tradition of Swiss-Sino ties

Economic ties between Switzerland and China 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 the country began to open its economy to the outside world after the Mao era.

The eight-day mission to China will focus on three markets which Syz believes are likely to provide investment opportunities for Swiss businesses in the future.

"We are specifically focusing on life sciences, public transportation and environmental technology," Syz explained. "I think we have an expertise in these fields. When it comes to life sciences, nobody has to explain to the world that we are very strong in pharmaceutical products."

"Huge potential"

Syz believes there is "huge potential" over the next decade for long-term Swiss investment in China's pharmaceutical industry.

Switzerland's two largest pharmaceutical companies, Novartis and Roche, are already well established in China, but the Swiss delegation is hoping to pave the way for small and medium-size firms to invest in the country.

"We have to find out - especially for our smaller companies - what the potential is and where specifically they could become active," said Syz.

The Swiss delegation is also keen to boost investment in China's public transportation sector.

"We won't be able to invest in the infrastructure itself because this is still a very national market, but we can provide technology like carriages and locomotives and we could also get involved in the design of the whole system," said Syz.

The latest mission is the first major visit by a Swiss delegation to China since Beijing acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the end of last year.

"[Accession to] the WTO is not a process which takes places from one day to the other," commented Syz. "But we have many more possibilities to go into China and... we are at the start of a very promising development."

Tackling the brain drain

The delegation to China also regards the visit as an opportunity to help attract new scientific talent to Switzerland.

Charles Kleiber said China was a particularly good source of talent, and sends over 2000 scientists to the United States every year.

He said there was no reason why Switzerland could not gain similar benefits by tapping the brainpower of Chinese scientists.

"If they go to the United States, why not to Switzerland? It's a matter of providing the [right] conditions," he said.

"If we can reverse this flow of scientists going [to the US], then we would be happy."

Kleiber said Switzerland hoped to attract Chinese experts by creating more doctoral positions, and establishing a permanent China-based Sino-Swiss institution such as a "Swiss house" for science and education.

Looking ahead

Switzerland began to invest in China in 1992, when Beijing approved a Sino-Swiss joint venture with the Schindler Lift Company.

Syz believes Switzerland's track record of investment in China has given the country a head start in the future development of economic ties.

"In the last decade we have multiplied by four or five our imports and exports, and I imagine it will be a similar story in the next ten years," said Syz.

"Maybe at the beginning things will slow down because the world economy is not in the best mood, but with the liberalisation of the market I think we will have a very strong development three years from now."

by Ramsey Zarifeh

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