The cherished principle of Swiss neutrality has been tested by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Despite rows over arms sales — with the US and European neighbors —  a surprising number of actors have a stake in its preservation. A new report by the country’s intelligence service, however, has underlined the risks of becoming a playground for rivals in a fractured world.   

Switzerland has evolved from its classic Cold War role – reprised when Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met on the Geneva lakefront in June 2021 – to a more complex position. The new actor, unsurprisingly, is China. And the nature of the game has changed. 

As in a John Le Carré plot, where Alpine skies look down on grey men in suits hovering at railway stations and tram stops, the safe, quiet confederation is still a marvelous place to be a spy. So much so, according to Christian Dussey, chief of the Federal Intelligence Service, that at least one-third of the 220 accredited Russian diplomatic staff in the country are believed to work for his opponents in Moscow. 

Dussey, 55, is no lightweight and he is not prone to hyperbole. A seasoned, cosmopolitan bureaucrat educated at Fribourg, Georgetown, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, he is one of the most sophisticated operators in an elite that does not lack talent. He has served as ambassador to Iran and, inter alia, is a staff officer in the Swiss army. Armed neutrality, one supposes, is in his bones. 

From a Swiss perspective, he writes in the official French language version of his report, Russia and China want to change the status quo with regard to international institutions, rules, and existing norms. All are fundamental to Switzerland as host to the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Red Cross. Its own existence depends on treaties from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the Hague Conventions of 1907 which state “the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland and the integrity and inviolability of its territory.” 

China might seem an unlikely player in a small, rich landlocked European state. In fact, Chinese official histories have outlined the importance of Switzerland as a bridgehead since the early 1950s, when it was one of the first capitalist powers to establish relations with the People’s Republic. It became the headquarters for Chinese political, economic, cultural, and intelligence action for two decades, according to Ariane Knüsel, a Swiss historian.   

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Dussey’s report says China now employs “dozens of active intelligence officers undercover at its embassy and consulates.” He notes they are fewer than the Russians but adds that “it is highly probable that the Chinese intelligence services make more use of non-diplomatic cover.” 

“Their members mainly pose as scientists, journalists or businessmen and women,” he writes. Swiss intelligence believes that, like other dictatorships, the Chinese run surveillance and influence operations directed at their own diaspora. “In Switzerland as in other countries these do not just use official channels but also Chinese political, cultural, and economic organizations. These networks are used by the Chinese security and intelligence services for intelligence collection.” 

In his report to parliament, Dussey laments that his service rapidly runs up against legal limitations in countering foreign espionage and influence. He also warns that Switzerland itself is vulnerable because it presently sits as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and conducts sensitive diplomatic negotiations with hostile powers.  

China has two objectives in Switzerland. One is to advance its campaign to get more Chinese nationals into senior positions inside the UN system and multilateral organizations. (The country is home to 40 international bodies, with more than 25,000 staff.) The other is to build influence over Swiss politicians and businesspeople to win economic advantage, to push its messaging on controversial domestic issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and to keep Switzerland neutral in any future strategic conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea. It has been subtle and effective. 

A recent survey by Le Temps, a Geneva daily newspaper, was headlined “Peking in search of Swiss ‘friends.’” It described a network of sympathizers in politics and academia who have proved useful to China in the past. It said Chinese students were used to collect information and a Swiss scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2017 had “prudently declined” a solicitation to work in China. Since the end of pandemic controls, the paper said, the intensity of diplomatic, political, and business exchanges has gone into overdrive.   

The Chinese ambassador, Wang Shihting, is an adept player of the game. According to Le Temps, he reacted swiftly when parliament voted to improve relations with its democratically elected counterpart in Taiwan. A shrill statement of condemnation was followed by the appearance on the embassy’s website of a photo showing the ambassador receiving Ueli Maurer, an influential former finance minister, in a Beijing-style setting of oversized armchairs beneath a classical landscape frieze. The two sipped tea from porcelain cups. 

It turned out, said Le Temps, that it was an old picture set up to look “as if it was an official meeting” which had been taken on 12 April, some three weeks earlier. Its message, however, was unmistakable, the paper said: “Contrary to members of parliament, the government is in step with Beijing, and the economy is aligned with China.” 

Dussey’s intelligence report for next year is sure to make interesting reading.  

Michael Sheridan is the author of ‘The Gate to China: A new history of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong’ published by HarperCollins and Oxford University Press (USA). He was Far East Correspondent of The Sunday Times for 20 years. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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