There is a lack of awareness of the problems in dealing with the new China under its authoritarian leader Xi Jinping.
When China’s Communists gather for their week-long party congress on Sunday, the whole world will be watching. It is unlikely that much will trickle out to the public, however. China’s Red Party remains a black box. The only meaningful news will be that President Xi Jinping will begin another, third term in office.
In ten years as president, the Chinese “party emperor” has turned the country of 1.4 billion people inside out. During his rule, he has not only heavily outfitted the military, cleansed the party of internal critics and subjected society to techno-totalitarian control, but also made his foreign policy goal clear from very early on: to achieve equal footing with the U.S. and overtake the U.S. as global hegemon. Xi openly acknowledges his power ambitions. He long ago departed from the previous veneer that China’s rise would be quiet and peaceful.
The U.S. has thus declared China to be its main rival. And recognition has taken hold even in the EU that China is increasingly becoming a rival, in addition to a partner and competitor. Awareness of such problems still seems lacking in Switzerland, however.
Of course, Switzerland is forging its own path with China. Relations have historically grown. Switzerland was one of the first Western countries to recognize China and did so as early as 1950, just three-and-a-half months after the People’s Republic was declared. Switzerland was also the first Western country to conclude a free trade deal with China, back in 2014. Since then, trade between the countries has grown vibrantly.
But the Swiss Federal Council also cannot ignore the rapidly declining human rights situation. In its China strategy published last year, it stated on that subject that “China became wealthier but not freer.” Human rights violations in treatment of the Uyghur minority have been documented by the U.N. Discrimination against Tibetans and the dismantling of rights to freedom in Hong Kong are obvious. These topics are also regularly addressed in bilateral talks.
What the Federal Council’s strategy largely lacks, however, is a realistic assessment of the risks of dependency on what has become the country’s third-largest trade partner.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that China is indispensable not only because of internationally linked supply chains, but also because of its dominance in certain high-tech sectors. The massive Chinese domestic market, where Swiss companies make a good profit, plays an equally large role. Withdrawal from Russia’s deliveries of natural resources is causing short-term pain, but a break with China would cause much greater upheaval for Europe and for Switzerland.
Swiss relations will not be concretely tested, however, until Xi decides to attack the renegade province of Taiwan. For many China experts, the question is no longer if, but when that will happen. When it does, a phalanx of democracies is likely to take shape, stretching from North America across Europe to Japan, South Korea and Australia.
And Switzerland? Neutral Switzerland would find itself having to decide whether to try to maintain its pragmatic intermediate path or if it joins their ranks, as it has already done with the sanctions against Russia. If Switzerland does not join them, there will inevitably be pressure coming from countries to the west and from the U.S. The future debate about the neutrality initiative launched by the Swiss People’s Party will play out in this context. The China question will be a deciding factor in the struggle for absolute, cooperative or any other form of neutrality.