Why Switzerland? The factors in its favour as a site for China-US talks

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Several factors were in Switzerland’s favour when China and the United States chose the country to host the highest-level diplomatic talks between Beijing and Washington in nearly six months.

While China watchers are still debating whether the meeting in Zurich between US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and President Xi Jinping’s top diplomatic aide Yang Jiechi marks a thaw in their increasingly acrimonious relations, it seems the rival powers at least have nothing against the host country.

For Washington, neutral Switzerland has been an obvious choice of venue for many of its diplomatic manoeuvring and historic summits, such as one in Geneva in 1985 between former president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev.

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President Joe Biden also chose Geneva, the United Nation’s second-most important seat after New York, to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin in June, their first meeting since the US leader took office.

Switzerland has also represented US interests in Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran.

Historically non-aligned, Switzerland has a special place for the Communist Party leadership for its unique role in helping China reach out to the West during the Cold War.

China’s embassy in Switzerland, Beijing’s only diplomatic mission in central and southern Europe, was long known as China’s gateway to many European capitals in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1954, then premier Zhou Enlai met his French counterpart at the Chinese embassy in Bern, which paved the way for the establishment of relations between China and France a decade later.

And China’s relations with Switzerland have been stable compared with Beijing’s ties with many other European countries, according to Huang Jing, dean of the Institute of International and Regional Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University.

Although Switzerland joined the US and other Western countries last year in condemning Beijing’s repressive policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the United Nations, it is not a US ally and it has not joined Western sanctions against China – considerations that are not missed in Beijing.

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Nanjing University political scientist Gu Su said that by choosing Switzerland, both sides may want to send a message.

“Both sides have talked quite tough in recent months, with bilateral ties showing growing signs of confrontation and even a head-on collision. It’s time for them to tone down a bit,” Gu said.

“They need a proper atmosphere to get the job done and Switzerland, a neutral, peace-loving country, is a perfect choice.”

He said China had shown a desire to ease tensions and rebuild trust with the US in recent weeks because the leadership in Beijing was under domestic economic and political pressure.

“The rapidly deteriorating ties with the US and its key allies, such as Australia, have had a rather serious impact on China’s economy and calls for improvement or even a detente are growing within the Communist Party, especially in the lead-up to the party’s national congress next year,” Gu said.

“Apparently, the meeting between Yang and Sullivan is an attempt to explore the possibility of a diplomatic truce and identifying both sides’ bottom lines for a leadership summit between Xi and Biden.”

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But Huang cautioned that the Zurich meeting was mostly symbolic and might not have much impact on policy on either side.

He noted that Sullivan was not a US cabinet member and although Yang outranked Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Yang was a party official.

“We don’t know for sure how much influence Sullivan has over Biden and Yang is not known to have close ties with Xi. It will significantly hinder their ability to make critical decisions and cut deals,” Huang said.

“It is a positive step for senior officials to meet and talk, but don’t expect too much.”

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