Why Switzerland Needs More Asia Competence

It’s hardly news that the 21st Century will be, in many ways, the “Asian Century”. “After the European 19th Century and the American 20th Century, the future will be Asian”, writes bestselling author Parag Khanna in his new book. The most populous and fastest-growing region of the world is increasingly present on the global stage. From Asia’s point of view, that’s not a radical change, but simply a return to a “normal” state.

At first glance, Switzerland seems to be well prepared for the Asian future: Swiss companies have been present in Asia for decades, some even for centuries. Since 2014, we have a free trade agreement with China, and Switzerland has an excellent reputation across the region.

But the insight that a more dominant Asia also requires a deeper understanding of the region is taking hold only slowly. After the takeover of Syngenta by a Chinese state-owned enterprise, there have been debates about investment controls. And some politicians have demanded that Switzerland develop an explicit “China strategy”.

But these discussions are – understandably – influenced by current affairs and thus focused mostly on China. Deeper conversations on Asia, its history and its culture are still far and few in between. According to several sources, the number of pupils learning Chinese in Swiss schools is even decreasing (though there are no hard numbers to come by). And both university students and professionals have very little interest to leave cosy Switzerland to spend some time in Asia.

This is worrying, because Switzerland urgently needs more, and more holistic, Asia Competence. We understand it to have three components: First, deeper knowledge and contextual understanding of Asia, including history, economics and culture, that allows for a clear-eyed assessment of current headlines. Second, the ability to collaborate across borders by fostering intercultural competence and building networks. And third, we need Asia Competence to be able to serve as a platform between Asia and the world.

There are plenty of things we can do to increase our Asia Competence: Swiss think tanks – existing and possibly new ones – should generate more knowledge and dialogue on Asia’s development, and connect to each other as well as with Asia-focused institutions across Europe. Asia issues should become part of the curriculum at Swiss high schools. We also need exchange programs between Switzerland and Asia: For students, start-ups, politicians, young leaders, and others. Getting to know each other and building strong networks is key.

Of course, Switzerland has a range of initiatives already contributing to this goal: The Chambers of Commerce, institutions like the Chinese-Swiss Association, but also universities across the country. At Asia Society, we work hard to make our global network of experts accessible to Switzerland.

But individual initiatives can only go so far. If we are truly serious about increasing Asia Competence and making Switzerland fit for the Asian future, we need more coordination, and perhaps – un-Swiss as this might be – one or more big projects. Because Asia is not a niche interest anymore; it’s imperative for everyone caring about a successful Switzerland.


This is the English translation of Nico Luchsinger's op-ed published in NZZ on November 19, 2019. Read the German version here.