Switzerland’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative

Switzerland and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have a history of 70 years of diplomatic relations. With the opening-up of China in the 1980s, the Swiss government started to cooperate with the PRC in various fields (economy, science and technology, education, environment, culture, and human rights). Since 2010, China is considered as Switzerland’s main commercial partner in Asia. In this context, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched by the President Xi Jinping in 2013 is a new challenging opportunity for Switzerland. The initiative is mainly perceived as a wide infrastructure project aiming to connect Asia with the European and African continents. The BRI is also covering multiple dimensions (economic, political, digital, health). Beijing is at the central position of this project which is a new type of structure in the international stage. Indeed, the PRC is developing the BRI through partnership with many countries and various actors from the multilateral framework[1].

Geopolitical tensions around the Belt and Road Initiative : Where is Switzerland standing?

In 2019, the Swiss president Ueli Maurer visited China for a week primarily to attend the second Belt and Road Forum. During his stay, he met the Chinese president Xi Jinping and signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on finance and trade. However, the Swiss’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative may be criticized by many western countries. Indeed, the US and many EU countries are not interested to join the ambitious Chinese project. These countries perceive security and economic threats to the development of the BRI. In this context, Daniel Warner, a Swiss-US political analyst explained that Maurer’s visit could be considered as “a pragmatic acknowledgement of the increase importance of China” for Switzerland. He also underlined that this stand could question the Swiss neutrality and its “role in the promotion of traditional liberal values” [2]. Furthermore, according to Andre Wheeler, Switzerland doesn’t share the same perspective as most of the western countries. He declared: “The Swiss government’s response […] has been to argue that by having constructive engagement with China, they are better placed to effect change”[3].

This year, the Swiss Foreign Affairs Department released its first strategic report on China (Stratégie Chine 2021-2024). The public reception of this report illustrates the ambiguous position of Switzerland in today’s international system. For Simona Grano, sinologist, Switzerland is using its neutrality to be independent regarding its foreign policy. She explained that Switzerland is trying to survive by not taking sides for Washington or Beijing and cooperating at the same time with both countries[4].

However, Switzerland is facing difficulties to deal with human rights issues related to China. One the one hand, Switzerland is not following EU sanctions or US and Australia “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. On the other hand, non-governmental organization like Amnesty Switzerland exposed concerns on human rights violations in China. The NGO also asked the Swiss government to take a public stand which led to some remarks on the latest strategic report. Consequently, the Chinese ambassador in Switzerland, Wang Shihting refuted the criticisms exposed in the report[5].

Besides, China and Switzerland are willing to cooperate in the fields of humanitarian aids and development assistance. For several Swiss NGOs even though Beijing demonstrated its strength during the pandemic by delivering vaccines to the developing countries, they still believe Chinese’s interests in humanitarian aids are geopolitical.

According to Fritz Brugger, there is a “Manichaeism” in the current discussion about China’s behaviour which frequently described it in a pejorative way. He further developed that the discourse is limited on the Chinese interests regarding its image and on the bad quality of its products. For Brugger, it is just a way to flee the real issue[6].

Economic and political consequences of the Sino-Swiss cooperation

As we said before, Beijing is leading the Belt and Road Initiative through partnership with multiple actors. For this purpose, China also founded in 2015 the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a regional financial institution to promote sustainable economic growth. In four years, 78 countries joined the AIIB. Switzerland is considered as one of the founding members with its entry in April 2016 and its capital input of 706,4 million USD. The AIIB offers great economic opportunities for Switzerland as it allowed companies to get further access in Asia. The Swiss government could also play an active role in international affairs (climate change, financial crisis, food security) since it is the purpose of the multilateral banks to facilitate cooperation between developed and developing countries[7].

Besides, the Chinese government is using the notorious Swiss financial market to internationalize the renminbi. Indeed, the China Construction Bank (CCB) as a representative of the Central Bank of the PRC has opened an office in Zürich in 2016. Consequently, the CCB has been expanding “cross-border business with the Chinese currency in Switzerland as a clearing bank for renminbi”[8]. This financial frame is important for trade along the Belt and Road Initiative as participant countries could get “access to independent and internationally accredited dispute resolution mechanism”. Therefore, Switzerland’s image as a “neutral service provider” may help the development of the BRI projects. In exchange for this stability, in 2019, China helped Switzerland’s tourism by providing a group of customers (tour group of 12’000 employees in sales) which was a gain of 14 million dollars[9]. Therefore, we understand that both countries are benefiting economically from their cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative.

To conclude, Switzerland is clearly involved in Belt and Road Initiative since it is a shareholder of the AIIB and signed an MoU on trade and finance to facilitate BRI projects. We’ve seen that Bern defends its cooperation with Beijing through the concepts of neutrality and independence with a willingness to engage into a constructive dialogue concerning human rights issues. However, geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing will increase the difficulty for the Swiss government to justify its foreign policy.

By Gopiga Arulchelvam

[1] Département fédéral des affaires étrangères DFAE (2021). Stratégie Chine 2021-2024.

[2] SWI – (2019). La visite en Chine met en lumière des failles dans la neutralité suisse.

[3] (2019). Switzerland’s curious Belt and Road Initiative stance.

[4] SWI – (2021). La marge de manœuvre de la Suisse entre Washington et Pékin

[5] SWI – (2021). Switzerland and China to hold strategic talks on Saturday.

[6] SWI – (2021). La Chine veut se joindre à la Suisse dans l’aide au développement.

[7] Confédération Suisse – Coopération internationale (2021). Banque asiatique d’investissement dans les infrastructures – BAII.

[8] (2021). Swiss Renminbi Hub Has 13 Partner Banks.

[9] (2019). Switzerland’s curious Belt and Road Initiative stance.

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