Diplomacy and Covid-19 – Why Berne is playing it safe with China

Switzerland is not showing up with the United States to demand more transparency from Beijing on the origin of the pandemic.
Patrick Monay

Posted today at 11:52 a.m.

Federal Councilor Ignazio Cassis, head of the FDFA, surrounded by some of his advisers for the Confederation’s strategy with China, on March 19.

KEYSTONE/Anthony Anex

China must give “full access” to its data to allow the world to understand the origin of the pandemic of Covid-19. This is the meaning of a official statement adopted last week by the United States and thirteen other countries, shortly after the publication of a controversial World Health Organization (WHO) report. Thirteen countries, including the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada, Japan, Australia, Denmark and Norway. But not Switzerland.

Why is that? The “NZZ” delivers an element of response this Thursday, after having questioned the Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). The answer given to him is “linguistic balancing”, as the Zurich daily puts it nicely. Basically, Bern seems to share the unease of the Americans. However, Switzerland wants to position itself “independently” within the framework of the WHO and therefore shows “restraint in this politically sensitive discussion”. Asked to co-sign the “concern” of Washington and its allies, it therefore refrained from doing so.

Criticized strategy

This caution clearly recalls the 2021-2024 Switzerland-China strategy presented by the Federal Council last month, notes the “NZZ”. In it, the government notes in particular that authoritarian tendencies have increased in China in recent years, as has the repression of dissidents and the persecution of minorities. He intends to bet on an independent policy towards China, with a constructive and critical dialogue – including in matters of human rights.

In fact, the dialogue between the two countries on human rights has hardly advanced for two years. And the publication of these strategic options has caused diplomatic tensions: the Chinese ambassador in Bern, Wang Shihting, publicly expressed criticism of his country. According to him, “Switzerland is making accusations and unfounded attacks on the political system, minority policy and the human rights situation in China ”. No wonder Ignazio Cassis’s FDFA did not want to stand alongside the Americans to put pressure on Beijing.

Information war

One of the keys to China’s handling of the pandemic is control of information and images. The American declaration must therefore be understood as a counterattack in an information war, analyzes the “NZZ”. The Biden administration continues the policies of the Trump administration. Since January, the Secretary of State Antony Blink vigorously calls for clarification on the origin of the virus. “The request made to the FDFA to sign the letter of protest was based on the understanding in principle that Switzerland shares the values ​​of the United States, regardless of its neutrality and its economic interests in China”, decodes the German-speaking newspaper.

As the conflict between China and the West escalates, the United States will come back to knock on Bern’s door, predicts the Zurich daily. After the origin of the coronavirus, it may be the exclusivity of technological standards, then the protection of intellectual property against Chinese industrial espionage. Switzerland will therefore once again have to take a stand in this subtle balancing act.

Unidentified animal

On the pandemic front, in any case, uncertainties remain. WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus himself demanded at the end of March a new investigation with experts specialized on the hypothesis of a leak of the virus from a Chinese laboratory. The authors of the first report qualified this hypothesis as “extremely improbable”. They favor the path of transmission of the virus to humans by an unidentified intermediate animal. As for a possible transmission by frozen meat – explanation put forward by Beijing – experts consider this scenario “possible”.

Posted today at 11:52 a.m.

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