Swiss President Ueli Maurer’s recent visit to China shows the complexity of Switzerland’s neutrality in the face of current geopolitical realities. The Swiss President and Finance Minister spent seven days in China, part of the time attending the second Belt and Road Forum on international cooperation. He also signed a memorandum of understanding with China focusing on finance and trade and even had a bilateral official meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Maurer’s attendance at a Forum celebrating the Belt and Road Initiative (B.R.I.) can be understood in two ways. As a perceptive article in the NY Times observed, the B.R.I., “a vast worldwide web of infrastructure-development projects mostly funded or sponsored by the Chinese government – has generated both tremendous enthusiasm and tremendous anxiety.” In Europe, there has been enthusiasm in Italy for the Chinese investment in the ports of Trieste and Genoa and enthusiasm in Greece over Chinese investment in the port of Piraeus.
The Swiss President has joined in this enthusiasm. To justify his attendance at the meeting that was shunned by the United States and India, Maurer said his attendance would be “supporting the contribution made by the Belt and Road Initiative to developing relations between Asia and Europe.” He also said that the Initiative “when implemented smoothly, will bring many benefits to both the economic development and the wellbeing of people worldwide.”
But there is also tremendous global anxiety about growing Chinese influence. As the Times article asks: “Is China the World’s Loan Shark?” According to the story, more than 1,000 Chinese loans in Africa totalled more than $143 billion between 2000 and 2017; there have been more than $143 billion Chinese loans to Latin America and the Caribbean since 2005. This policy has been derided as “debt-trap diplomacy,” with the negative example of China taking over the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota when the government failed to repay its loan.
Swiss criticisms of Maurer’s visit are on several fronts. Financially, there is obvious worry that China may acquire important Swiss enterprises. China controls more than 80 Swiss companies with a total value of CHF 46 billion. And there are evident concerns about the human rights situation in China. Many remember when the then Chinese President Jang Zemin said “Switzerland has lost a friend” in 1999 when pro-Tibetan protestors disrupted his visit to the Parliament in Bern. Geneva journalists certainly will not forget how during the January 2017 visit of President Xi Jinping to Geneva they were barred from covering his final speech, and that 1,600 UN staff were asked to vacate the Palais des Nations to prepare for the arrival of 200 members of a Chinese delegation and 800 invited guests.
U.S. President Donald Trump did not join the 37 heads of state at the B.R.I. summit. Nor were there any American representatives. “We will continue to raise concerns about opaque financing practices, poor governance, and disregard for internationally accepted norms and standards, which undermine many of the standards and principles that we rely upon to promote sustainable, inclusive development, and to maintain stability and a rules-based order," said State Dept. spokesman Robert Palladino in explaining the U.S. absence.
Does Ueli Maurer’s attendance at the Forum risk alienating the United States? (There is still no U.S. Ambassador to the International Organizations in Geneva.) Does it raise questions about Swiss neutrality? An eminent Swiss jurist described his entire career in the Swiss Government to me as being devoted to analysing the nuances of one word - neutrality. In this case, the expanding role of China and the “Firstism” of the United States require a serious analysis of Switzerland’s position towards China and what it means for neutrality. Neutrality is an evolving concept.
During President Xi Jinping’s first overseas trip in 2017 he visited the United Nations Office in Geneva and addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos. In his speeches, he praised multilateralism and re-asserted China’s interest in actively participating in global governance. Ueli Maurer’s trip can be seen as a pragmatic recognition of China’s growing importance. But it does raise questions about Swiss neutrality and its role in promoting traditional liberal values.