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CHINA

Chinese premier set to visit Switzerland

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang embarks this weekend on his first foreign trip since taking office, with a stop in Switzerland on the itinerary and free trade talks between the two countries close to completion.

Chinese premier set to visit Switzerland
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Photo: AFP

Li's nine-day tour starts in India and Pakistan but In Europe, his first stop is Switzerland, with which China is negotiating a free trade agreement.

Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann confirmed on Wednesday that Switzerland and China are moving closer to signing a trade deal.

China is Switzerland's sixth biggest export market and a number of Swiss sectors, such as the watch, pharmaceutical and chemical industries, stand to gain from removal of Chinese duties.

Luxury watches from Switzerland worth more than 1,500 francs are hit with a 20 percent tax in China, for example.

Analysts say Swiss companies such as Swatch, Richemont and elevator company Shindler would reap benefits from any lowering of Chinese tariffs.

The two countries have been negotiating a free trade deal for three years.

During his visit to Switzerland, Li is set to meet with Swiss President Ueli Maurer, Vice-President Didier Burkhalter and Schneider-Ammann.

"Li's visit to Switzerland will push forward bilateral ties and make bilateral cooperation a model of friendly exchanges between countries with different social systems," Song Tao, Chinese deputy foreign minister said, according to the China-based Xinhua news agency.   

Song said the two sides will sign a series of cooperation documents involving the economy and trade, finance, education, culture and climate change.

The Swiss government said a ninth round of free trade negotiations took place last week and the federal cabinet looked at a proposed free trade document this week.

The Xinhua news agency said the two sides have narrowed their differences in a number of areas.

These include goods, the service trade, rules of origin, trade facilitation, intellectual property and competition policy, a Chinese official said.

Beijing last month inked an FTA with Iceland, its first with a European country.

Li will finish his tour in Germany, China's largest trade partner in Europe with bilateral commerce totalling $161.1 billion last year — 29.5 percent of China's total trade with the EU.

The visit, which will include talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, comes amid an intensifying trade dispute over telecom equipment and solar panels.

Li's journey follows one by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russia and three African nations in March after the two men assumed their new positions, concluding China's once-a-decade leadership transition.

Since then a long-running border dispute with New Delhi has flared up with an alleged incursion by Chinese troops into Indian-claimed territory in the Himalayas, while trade disputes with the EU have intensified.

The Xinhua news agency said the trips illustrate Beijing's "overall diplomatic strategy, with which the new Chinese leadership aims to show the outside world its commitment to peaceful development".

Li starts his nine-day journey in India on Sunday.

"There are some historical issues between China and India, including the boundary question," deputy foreign minister Song told reporters.

But he underlined their similarities as "ancient civilisations and emerging markets".

The Asian giants are the world's two biggest countries by population, accounting for more than one-third of the world's seven billion people.

China is India's second-largest trading partner, with two-way commerce totalling $66.5 billion last year, according to Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Jiang Yaoping.

It was targeted to reach $100 billion by 2015, he told reporters, adding the goal was "expected to be realized on schedule".

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CHINA

Swiss claim China deal posed no threat to dissidents

The Swiss strongly rejected accusations this week that a deal allowing Chinese officials to enter Switzerland and interrogate Chinese nationals, which only recently came to light, put dissidents at risk.

Swiss claim China deal posed no threat to dissidents
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter in Beijing in 2016. Photo: Mark Schiedelbein/POOL/AFP
Switzerland entered into a so-called re-admission agreement with China back in 2015. The deal expired on Monday.
   
The agreement, which remained a secret until Swiss newspaper NZZ divulged its existence in August, specified the terms for Chinese officials to travel to the country and interrogate Chinese nationals set for deportation.
   
Asia-focused rights group Safeguard Defenders this week published the text of the deal, plus a report about how it differed from similar agreements with other countries, and could pose a threat to “those the Chinese government wants to be returned”.
   
The details coming to light are “going to tarnish Switzerland's reputation”, Peter Dahlin, who heads the organisation, told AFP.
   
Following the initial revelation of the agreement in August, since-jailed Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong weighed in on Twitter, decrying the secretive nature of the deal.
   
“Five years after the secret deal was signed, no Swiss MP had ever heard of the deal,” he tweeted on August 24, warning that “dissidents in exile” from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere, could risk extradition to China.
 
 
'Standard practice'
 
The Swiss migration ministry meanwhile flatly denied that there was anything secretive about the China deal, insisting it was a standard, “technical arrangement” like the ones it had reached with some 60 other countries.
   
While the agreement had never been posted publicly like many such deals, it “can be obtained on request at any time”, it said in a statement.   
 
Ministry spokesman Reto Kormann also stressed to AFP in an email that persons seen as threatened, like Uighur Muslims or Tibetans, would not be considered for expulsion, and “would not be questioned by Chinese officials”.
   
He explained that readmission agreements were needed because “most states are only willing to take back their own citizens if they can verify their identity”.
   
“Accordingly, such interviews are standard practice in Switzerland as in other European states.”
   
The China deal had been put to use only once in the past five years, in 2016, the ministry said. During that mission, “two Chinese officials stayed in Switzerland for several days to interview a total of 13 people”, it said.
   
The Swiss migration ministry had expected to renew the agreement before it expired on December 7. But it said is was not worried it had lapsed, stressing it was possible to invite in foreign delegations even without it.
   
After the deal came to light back in August, left-leaning parties called for more oversight, and the issue will now be discussed by parliament in the coming months.
   
After that, ministry spokesman Daniel Bach told AFP, talks with Chinese authorities about reinstating the deal would begin. “It is in Switzerland's interest to renew this agreement,” he said.
 
 
'Misleading'
 
The Safeguard Defenders report meanwhile maintained that Switzerland's deal with China was in no way like its agreements with other countries.
   
The report compared Switzerland's deal with China to the ones it has with Sweden, India, Hong Kong and Britain, and said it found glaring differences.
   
“It differs so much,” Dahlin said, that comparing it to typical readmission agreements “is itself misleading”.
   
While such agreements are usually reached with immigration departments or foreign ministries, the deal with China was reached with its public security ministry, which handles immigration, but also police and intelligence matters.
   
The Chinese “experts” sent in are not immigration bureaucrats, but “agents”, Dahlin said, adding that the deal allowed them to “roam freely, conduct interviews and interrogations unsupervised”.
   
He warned the agents could conceivably also move freely throughout Europe's passport-free Schengen area, which “would obviously be a major concern for the capitals in the countries around Switzerland”.
   
Kormann however stressed that the Swiss migration ministry plans the duration of assignments, and the duration of the visas accordingly.
   
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry meanwhile told AFP the criticism of its agreement with Switzerland was based on “a misinterpretation of the facts”.
   
“Other European countries engage in similar cooperation with China,” she said.
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