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Switzerland skirts around Taiwan question

Switzerland has been mindful of maintaining good relations with both Taipei and Beijing

The General Committee of the United Nations is due to discuss on Wednesday the status of Taiwan, the only territory in the world to be excluded from the organisation.

But Switzerland is likely to maintain a diplomatic silence on the issue in a bid to maintain good relations with both Beijing and Taipei.

The UN General Committee is due to discuss a proposal put forward by 15 UN members that Taiwan’s status be given priority during the General Assembly’s 58th session, which opened on Tuesday.

Taiwan was formed after two million Chinese Nationalists fled to the island, following the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949. Taipei has been calling for independence from China ever since.

Although the debate is open to the General Assembly’s 81 members, the Committee – made up of only 21 members – is responsible for setting the session’s agenda and is expected to reject the proposal.

As a member of the UN, Switzerland is in a position to voice its opinion on the thorny issue – but it is reluctant to do so. Bern is currently negotiating with Beijing over boosting the number of Chinese tourists to Switzerland.

The majority of UN member states are believed to support Beijing, which wants Taiwan to formally remain part of its territory.

Last week, 50,000 protesters took to the streets in support of the “call Taiwan, Taiwan” campaign, which is viewed with alarm by Chinese leaders who fear it is part of a drift toward independence under President Chen Shui-bian.

Delicate diplomacy

Switzerland is in a delicate diplomatic position when it comes to Taiwan: the government wants to maintain important economic ties with Taipei without offending Beijing.

Switzerland was one of the first nations to recognise the People’s Republic of China and has never officially recognised the territory formed by the Chinese Nationalists.

But Taiwan is nevertheless a key economic partner, being a commercial and industrial powerhouse and at the forefront of technological innovations.

Taiwan is also a fertile market for Swiss goods, with imports totalling SFr1.18 billion ($850 million) in 2002. Taiwanese tourists are also keen visitors to the Alpine nation, with around 70,000 Taiwanese travelling to Switzerland every year.

But Switzerland has been mindful of maintaining its strict stance towards Taipei. Although it has allowed the Taiwanese to have an official representation in Bern, it has insisted that the office be discreet and call itself the “Cultural and Economic Delegation of Taipei”.

But, to the displeasure of Beijing, Taipei does also have some allies in Switzerland.

A commission made up of members of the Swiss Senate last year asked the foreign ministry to be more assertive regarding the question of Taiwan.

A parliamentary group, consisting of 60 parliamentarians, has also been set up specifically to look at the issue of Taiwan.

swissinfo, Michel Walter (translation: Vanessa Mock)

Previously under Japanese rule, Taiwan became part of China in 1945.
Taiwan acquired its official name in 1949 when the Chinese Nationalists fled to the island after defeat by the Communists in a civil war.
China has reserved the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control, and has missiles aimed at the island.
Some 22.5 million people live on the island, which had a Gross Domestic Product of $406 million in 2002.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR