German Chancellor Angela Merkel says it was a big success that at the end of the German presidency of the Council of the European Union talks were finalized on an investment protection agreement with China. That was in late December, but misgivings about Merkel’s policy toward China have since been growing.
Neither the European Commission nor the European Parliament is currently in favor of closer ties with Beijing. Ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement of Investment (CAI) has been put on hold because of China’s human rights abuses.
The government in Beijing not only denies any such abuses but keeps attacking Western politicians, journalists and human rights campaigners who pillory the oppression of the Tibetan or Uighur minorities or criticize the lack of press freedom in the Asian nation.
For the Swiss government, though, human rights abuses seem to be no obstacle to expanding economic relations. An investment protection treaty between the two countries was signed as early as 2009.
Growing exchange of goods
A bilateral free trade agreement followed four years later. Jan Alteslander from influential Swiss business lobby association Economiesuisse told DW that Switzerland’s experience had been positive, adding that bilateral trade had been almost balanced and had even picked up momentum in the past couple of years.
In 2019, Switzerland exported goods worth 13.4 billion Swiss francs (€12.2 billion, $14.7 billion) to China while importing goods worth 14.9 billion Swiss francs. In the last two decades, Swiss investments in China rose eightfold.
Yet Beijing is more important to Bern than the other way round, if Chinese investments in Switzerland are anything to go by. Over the past couple of years, Swiss banks have acquired majority stakes in Chinese subsidiaries. China for its part took over Swiss agriculture giant Syngenta for a hefty sum.
People who voice concerns that such deals are not only of a purely economic nature but could also involve spying activities, can easily become the target of Beijing’s ire.
China’s ambassador to Switzerland, Wang Shihting, recently rejected any such claims in an online press conference, praised the bilateral ties between the two nations and called the existence of “so-called concentration camps,” in which Uighurs were subjected to forced labor, spiteful political speculation.
Critical analysis, but no consequences
Before the ambassador’s public appearance, the Swiss government published a China strategy report. In it, China is described as a one-party state where authoritarian tendencies are on the rise and dissidents are oppressed.
Bern complains that China uses its cybercapabilities to push through its strategic economic and scientific interests. However, the free trade agreement itself is not called into question.
Swiss Council of States member Damian Müller from the Liberal Democrats lauded the progress made in relations with China. But he added vis-a-vis DW that the free trade agreement had to be improved. “Above all, the human rights situation has to move into focus when debating our ties with China,” he said.
National Council member Fabian Molina from the Social Democrats echoed his view. He told DW that China was increasingly pushing through its economic interests in an authoritarian way.
Keeping it neatly separated
So far, Switzerland has often tried to separate economic interests and human rights, according to Ralph Weber from the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel.
He told DW that there had been a widespread view that trade matters had nothing to do with human rights — and that those fighting against human rights abuses were stuck in their own world of values and had nothing to do with the real economy.
To counter this Weber demanded that Switzerland put human rights issues higher on its national agenda, saying there are economic reasons for such a move. He added that in the past 20 years, Switzerland may have talked a lot about human rights, but had at the same time always been banking on the benefits of trade.