China, Switzerland agree to support early launch of formal FTA upgrade talks amid Li’s visit
Published: Jan 15, 2024 10:51 PM
Chinese Premier Li Qiang engages in candid exchanges with President of the Swiss Confederation Viola Amherd in a relaxing and friendly atmosphere on a special train from Zurich to Bern, the capital of Switzerland, Jan. 14, 2024. (Xinhua/Wang Ye)

Chinese Premier Li Qiang engages in candid exchanges with President of the Swiss Confederation Viola Amherd in a relaxing and friendly atmosphere on a special train from Zurich to Bern, the capital of Switzerland, Jan. 14, 2024. (Xinhua/Wang Ye)

China and Switzerland have completed the joint feasibility study on upgrading the China-Switzerland Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and agreed to support the early launch of formal FTA upgrade negotiations, the two sides announced on Monday during talks between Chinese Premier Li Qiang and President of the Swiss Confederation Viola Amherd in Bern, Switzerland. China also announced it will waive visa requirements for Swiss nationals while Switzerland said it will offer convenient visa processes for Chinese citizens and companies. 

Li is paying an official visit to Switzerland and is scheduled to deliver a highly anticipated speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on Tuesday. The trip to Switzerland, the first overseas trip by Li in 2024, underscores the importance and recognition of the steadily growing China-Switzerland bilateral relationship, in particular the robust economic and trade cooperation, experts said.

Switzerland was among the first Western countries to establish diplomatic relations with China and the first European country as well as the first world's top 20 economy to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with China. As bilateral ties continue to advance and cooperation continues to expand, Switzerland's independent and pragmatic attitude toward cooperation with China sets a great example for other European nations amid rising tensions, experts noted. 

Li arrived in Switzerland on Sunday, when he was received by Amherd at the airport in Zurich. The two leaders then boarded a train from Zurich to the Swiss capital of Bern, during which they had candid exchanges. Li said that China stands ready to deepen mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields with Switzerland for more practical results, and China will only open its door wider and wider to the outside world, welcoming more Swiss companies to invest in the country, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

For her part, Amherd also said that many Swiss companies have made good achievements in investment and development in China and are willing to further deepen their presence in the Chinese market. 

On Monday morning, the two sides announced the completion of the joint feasibility study on the upgrade of the China-Switzerland FTA and agreed to support the launch of formal upgrade negotiations as soon as possible. The two sides also announced a series of bilateral meetings this year in areas such as diplomacy, finance, energy and education. China will also waive visa requirements for Swiss nationals. The two officials also witnessed the signing of economic and trade cooperation documents, according to Xinhua. 

"China-Switzerland bilateral relations have maintained sound development for a long time, both in terms of diplomacy and economic and trade cooperation," Cui Hongjian, a professor with the Academy of Regional and Global Governance at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Global Times on Monday. "Premier Li's trip shows the importance China attaches to ties with Switzerland and recognition of the fruitful results achieved in bilateral ties."

Exemplary ties

Switzerland recognized and established diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China in 1950, shortly after its founding in 1949. Amid stable bilateral ties, the two countries inked an FTA in 2013, and Switzerland became the first country in the European continent and the first of the world's top 20 economies to sign an FTA with China. Under the FTA, which took effect in 2014, 99 percent of Chinese exports to Switzerland and 96 percent of Swiss exports to China enjoy zero tariffs. 

According to latest data from the General Administration of Customs (GAC), in the first 11 months of 2023, China-Switzerland bilateral trade increased by 6.3 percent year-on-year to more than $54.34 billion yuan, with China's imports from Switzerland jumping 11.8 percent year-on-year. As of Monday, the GAC has not released a breakdown of imports and exports data with specific countries such as Switzerland for the full year.  

Top Swiss exports to China include mechanical and electrical products, chemical and pharmaceutical products, optical instruments, medical equipment and watches and clocks. Bilateral cooperation in the financial industry has also become a highlight in recent years. In 2022, the two countries launched the China-Switzerland Stock Connect. In 2023, Credit Suisse was approved by Chinese regulators to set up a wealth business in the Chinese market. Also in 2023, Swiss banking group UBS and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China agreed to explore collaboration in China and overseas. 

Meanwhile, many Swiss companies are also stepping up investment in the Chinese market. Rani Jarkas, chairman of Swiss financial firm Cedrus Group, told the Global Times that the firm will continue to invest in China. 

"We will invest and acquire innovative foreign firms that want to set up a base in China," Jarkas said, "We also help Chinese local champions to 'go global' and acquire assets on the international markets."

Such sound development in bilateral economic and trade cooperation is supported by joint efforts from both sides. Switzerland's neutral and rational stance toward ties with China has also played a crucial role, according to Cui. 

"Switzerland has long maintained a rational stance toward China, which sets a great example for other European countries," Cui said, noting that small but advanced economies such as Belgium and the Netherlands could also pursue a similar pragmatic approach toward China. 

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo visited China last week, during which the two countries agreed to deepen cooperation.

Chen Fengying, an economist and former director of the Institute of World Economic Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said that while China-EU ties face some tensions due to the EU side's increased antagonistic stance in areas such as new-energy vehicles, China has also maintained stable ties with many European countries.

"The international geo-economic landscape has changed dramatically, so it is necessary for us to remain steadfast in pursuing diplomacy based on mutual respect and benefit," Chen told the Global Times on Monday, adding that with Li's visit to Switzerland and attendance at the WEF annual meeting, China's diplomacy is off to a good start. "We should be confident about our diplomacy in 2024."

Chen said that Switzerland maintains a neutral stance on international affairs, and it is very influential on the global stage, as evidenced by the WEF. 

In addition to Switzerland, Li is also scheduled to pay an official visit to Ireland, where the two sides are expected to further boost bilateral cooperation. This trip is Li's second to Europe. In 2023, after becoming Chinese premier, Li made Europe his first destination for an overseas visit.