GENEVA (Reuters) -Efforts by Switzerland to refresh its free trade agreement with China have stalled as Bern takes a more critical view of Beijing’s human rights record, Swiss newspapers reported on Sunday.
Switzerland and China signed a free trade agreement in 2013, Beijing’s first such deal with an economy in continental Europe. The move was styled as a mutually beneficial pact aimed at contributing to increased trade between the two economies.
Switzerland has been trying to update the accord to extend tariff reductions to more Swiss products and to include sustainability features. However, Beijing is not engaging in this effort, the newspapers said.
“So far it has not been possible to agree on a common list of topics that should be explored in greater depth,” Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) said in a statement to newspaper SonntagsBlick.
Asked to respond about the stalling of the talks over human rights concerns, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday: “The China-Swiss FTA is a mutually beneficial agreement, not a gift from one party to another.”
“China hopes that Switzerland can exclude any man-made interference and work with China to move in the same direction,” Zhao told a regular press briefing.
NZZ am Sonntag, under the headline “The Chinese impasse”, said Switzerland had become more critical of China’s human rights record.
A Swiss parliamentary initiative recently passed by the National Council’s Legal Affairs Committee denounced forced labour of Uyghurs in northwest China as “a real problem”.
Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.
Jean-Philippe Kohl, head of economic policy at industry association Swissmem, told NZZ am Sonntag that Switzerland should pursue quiet diplomacy on China’s human rights record.
“If we, as a small economy, constantly point the finger of rebuke at China, nothing will change, except that relations will eventually break down,” he told the newspaper.
(Additional reporting by Emily Chow and Martin Quin Pollard; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Holmes)