Switzerland wishes to be the first European nation to sign a free trade deal with China to unlock more business opportunities, Swiss Economy Minister Doris Leuthard said on Thursday.
"We hope that Switzerland may be the first European country to have a free trade agreement with China," Leuthard said in an interview with Xinhua on the sidelines of an economic forum organized for a Chinese business delegation.
The delegation, led by China's Commerce Minister Chen Deming, is on a four-country European tour to buy products and technology. Switzerland is their second stop, where the Chinese companies inked trade deals worth more than 300 million U.S. dollars with Swiss counterparts.
Chen said after talks with Leuthard that China and Switzerland will launch a joint feasibility study on the free trade agreement in the latter half of this year.
It "marks a new step in our closer trade and economic cooperation," he said.
In his recent visit to Switzerland, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao decided with Swiss leaders that it was time for the two countries to start negotiations for a free trade agreement to expand bilateral trade and investment.
Leuthard said it was very important to have a free trade deal with China because the two countries have become increasingly important trading partners.
"We pay great attention to this," Leuthard said. "We are quite optimistic that the feasibility study could be concluded soon."
Leuthard noted that economic relations between Switzerland and China have long been outstanding and China is already one of the most important foreign markets for the Swiss economy.
In 2008, bilateral trade volume between China and Switzerland surpassed 10 billion U.S. dollars for the first time, reaching 11.25 billion dollars and up by 19.2 percent despite the economic downturn.
China is now Switzerland's second largest trading partner in Asia and Switzerland is one of the countries that run a trade surplus with China.
Echoing Leuthard's view, Chen said the two economies are highly complementary.
China is competitive in labor-intensive products, such as garments, jewelry, footwear and containers, while Switzerland boasts a distinct competitive edge in watches, medicines, measuring instruments and precision machinery.
China is currently establishing 14 free trade areas with 31 countries and regions, among which seven agreements have already been in effect. In Europe, China is already in free trade talks with Iceland and Norway.
With trade booming, Switzerland wants to explore more cooperation possibilities with China.
Welcoming the Chinese companies to buy Swiss products, Leuthard said it would also be good for them to invest in her country.
She said a large Swiss business delegation will go to China within this year to see whether further cooperation can be made.
Chen said some members of his delegation had already established contacts with Swiss companies and they may come to Switzerland a week later to tap investment possibilities.
"Further negotiations on investment takes longer time. So we need to have much more in-depth discussion concerning specific investment projects," he said.
Chen said a lack of credit resulting from the current world financial crisis and economic uncertainties have prevented Chinese companies from making outward investments, but Switzerland has emerged as a preferable destination since its economy is relatively stable and it recognizes the market economy status of China.
The two countries have recently signed a new agreement on the promotion and mutual protection of investments.
Earlier Thursday, Leuthard and Chen signed a memorandum on the intensification of technical cooperation in the field of environmental technology, where Switzerland also sees great potential.
"Switzerland and China will cooperate more strongly to ensure that economic growth can be shaped in a more sustainable and environmentally-sound manner," Leuthard said.
The Chinese trade delegation first went to Germany, where it signed 37 procurement deals worth about 11 billion euros (14 billion U.S. dollars) with local firms.
The delegation continued their trip to Madrid Thursday and will leave for London the same day, the final stop of their journey.