Chinese premier lauds trade deal in Bern

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Friday hailed a free trade deal with Switzerland as a landmark achievement, saying it had "huge meaning" for global trade and underscored Beijing's growing openness to the world.

Chinese premier lauds trade deal in Bern
Swiss parliament building in Bern. Photo: OFCL

"This free trade deal is the first between China and a continental European economy, and the first with one of the 20 leading economies of the globe," Li told reporters after the two countries inked a preliminary agreement, paving the way for a final signature in Beijing in July.
Li said the implications of the Swiss deal would be felt well beyond the 
Alpine nation's borders.
"This has huge meaning for global free trade," he said.

"China, a country with a vast population and huge currency reserves, is 
increasingly internationalising," he underlined, adding that Beijing's strategy of openness was paying dividends.
Swiss President Ueli Maurer dubbed the agreement a "real milestone".

Bilateral trade between Switzerland and China was worth $26.3 billion in 
2012, with a full $22.8 billion of that figure represented by Swiss exports to China.
That made it one of the rare Western countries to have a positive trade 
balance with the Asian giant.
In contrast, exports by European economic powerhouse Germany to China in 
2012 were worth the equivalent of $86 billion, and imports from China, $99.8 billion.
Switzerland's top exports to China are watches, pharmaceuticals and 
chemicals, and machinery, while textiles and machinery head the list of imported Chinese goods.
The trade talks were launched in 2011.

After wrangling notably over Chinese taxes on imported Swiss industrial 
goods and Switzerland's rules on China's agricultural exports, the two countries wrapped up technical talks earlier this month.
"We see the deal as something positive," Jean-Daniel Pasche, the head of 
Switzerland's FHS watchmaking federation, told AFP.

"It will give a legal framework to our cooperation."
He said his industry was hoping to see a fall in Chinese import duties on 
watches — currently at 12 to 16 percent — as well as better safeguards against counterfeiting.
After a formal signature, the deal will still need to clear the Swiss 

Swiss deal could energize EU talks 

Li, who arrived in Switzerland late Thursday fresh from talks in India and Pakistan, is on his maiden foreign trip since becoming premier in Beijing's once-in-a-decade power transfer.

He was set Saturday to leave for Germany, China's top European trade partner.

Unlike Germany, Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, and Li's visit came a month after China signed a free trade deal with Iceland, which also falls outside the 27-nation EU bloc.
The Iceland deal was China's first with a European country, and Beijing has 
been pressing the EU for a similar accord.
But efforts to strike an overarching deal with the EU are more complicated 
because Beijing would need to find agreement with the entire bloc.
On Thursday, EU officials said they aimed to negotiate an investment protection agreement with China, which would be the first step on the road to a wider free trade deal, despite a series of tit-for-tat disputes with Beijing.
Bilateral and regional free trade deals — including a planned EU-US accord 
and a proposed trans-Pacific agreement — are sharply in focus amid a deadlock at the World Trade Organization, whose 159 member states have struggled since 2001 to produce a global treaty on liberalising international commerce.
Critics warn that individual accords can create a "spaghetti bowl" of 
conflicting rules, thereby failing to serve global commerce, but supporters argue that they promote the cause of free trade.
"We don't see a conflict," Pasche said. 

"We see this as complementary. Though maybe with bilateralism you can go just that bit further."
Besides inking the free trade plan, China and Switzerland signed a raft of 
cooperation deals Friday, including on boosting financial sector ties.
China is reforming its financial sector, including through lifting 
restrictions on trading its currency.
With speculation that selected offshore centres could be chosen as currency 
trading hubs, Switzerland, whose financial sector is a major driver of the economy, hopes to be picked.

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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.
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.