Switzerland has adopted a regional strategy for the Southeast Asian countries for the first time. Not everyone likes the focus on economic cooperation.
“Southeast Asia is gaining geopolitical importance and is becoming increasingly important as a global partner,” writes Federal Councilor and Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in the foreword of the Southeast Asia strategy adopted in February. “Swiss economic actors can participate in this rise and contribute to the further development of the region.” According to Cassis, one should not lose sight of the regional challenges, including armed conflicts and climate change.
The Southeast Asia Strategy adopts the four priority areas of the Foreign Policy Strategy 2020-2023: peace and security, prosperity, sustainability and digitization. A fifth focus relates to services for Swiss citizens living in the region. More than 18,000 Swiss live in Southeast Asia, almost 10,000 of them in Thailand.
In the area of peace and security, Switzerland is committed to preventing and settling armed conflicts in Southeast Asia, such as those in Myanmar. The space for civil society engagement is becoming increasingly limited in some countries in the region. In Cambodia, for example, the work of the media and human rights activists is hampered by far-reaching surveillance laws. Members of ethnic and religious minorities are also discriminated against and persecuted in many places.
Compliance with international law is another focus of Swiss commitment. Switzerland’s membership of the UN Security Council in 2023 and 2024 offers an opportunity to intensify cooperation with the governments of the countries concerned in this regard.
Improving market access for Swiss companies
The Southeast Asia strategy gives a lot of space to economic cooperation. After all, the eleven countries in the region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei Darussalam, Timor-Leste) together form the fifth largest economic area in the world. The focus for Switzerland is to improve market access for Swiss companies via free trade agreements. In addition to existing agreements with Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, Switzerland is working with the EFTA partners Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway on free trade agreements with Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The focus on trade policy is met with criticism from aid organizations. “For us, aspects such as labor rights and corporate responsibility are clearly neglected in the strategy,” says Anja Ibkendanz, program officer for Asia at the Organization Solidar Switzerland, which is committed to decent working conditions worldwide. The organization has recently repeatedly over catastrophic conditions in the deportation centers in the Malaysian province of Sabah reported. The detainees are mainly undocumented migrants from Indonesia, most of them on palm oil plantations.
Solidar Suisse had already asked the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) to address these abuses in the ongoing bilateral negotiations on a free trade agreement with Malaysia. Like the Indonesia agreement, the agreement provides for tariff concessions for palm oil that has been certified as sustainable. Malaysia is Switzerland’s third most important palm oil supplier after Côte d’Ivoire and the Solomon Islands. “Switzerland shouldn’t be allowed to grant preferential tariffs for products that are produced in violation of fundamental rights,” says Ibkendanz.
There are also grievances on certified palm oil plantations
It is true that Seco assured the daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger last autumn that Switzerland and its EFTA partners insisted that Malaysia would comply with its obligations under the planned free trade agreement. Whether that will be realized is another question. The agreement with Indonesia at least does not provide for sanctions in the event of violations.
Solidar Suisse is not opposed to free trade agreements per se, but reliable mechanisms are needed to monitor whether sustainability regulations are being complied with. Solidar Suisse also points out that it Abuses also on certified plantations give.
Another point of contention is the 1991 Convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV91). As part of its planned free trade agreements with Malaysia and Thailand, Switzerland requires that both countries accede to the UPOV Convention. This violates farmers’ seed rights and endangers biodiversity, criticizes Alliance Sud, the working group of six large aid organizations, among others.
In Laos and Cambodia, on the other hand, according to the strategy, development cooperation is the priority for Switzerland, particularly in the areas of sustainable use of resources, inclusive economic development and the promotion of democratic structures. Switzerland is also one of the top donors to the Mekong River Commission, which aims to promote fair use of water resources and tackle cross-border conflicts. In Myanmar, on the other hand, she focuses on humanitarian aid and a long-term political solution to the conflict between the government and ethnic groups.
The Southeast Asia Strategy 2023-2026 is the fifth regional strategy to deepen the Foreign Policy Strategy 2020-2023. So far there are strategies for the MENA region, sub-Saharan Africa, China and the entire American continent.