On the occasion of his official visit to Bangkok, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, Vice-President of the Swiss Confederation and head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, reflects on nine decades of relations between Thailand and Switzerland. The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the close ties between the two countries.
Cassis: On official visit
Good relations are based on trust which cannot be built overnight. Friendships develop over time and trust grows out of long-term cooperation. Thailand and Switzerland demonstrate just how valuable such long-standing partnerships are: the two countries have maintained bilateral exchanges for 90 years. When Thailand and Switzerland signed a treaty of friendship and trade on May 28, 1931, the world was a very different place. Yet friendship and trade continue to be at the heart of our relations.
It is therefore a special pleasure for me to be able to look back on 90 years of our fruitful relationship here in Bangkok, on the very day on which Switzerland celebrates its National Day. Since becoming my country's foreign minister, this is the first time that I am celebrating our National Day outside Switzerland. I feel very close to Switzerland here in Bangkok, too, as I am surrounded by members of the strong Swiss community and by many Thai friends.
I had planned to travel to Thailand last summer. But my plans, like everyone else's, were upended by Covid-19. Still, postponed is not abandoned. Today I am confident that if we stand together as a global community, we will be able to overcome the challenges we are facing. Solidarity is a defining Swiss characteristic. We don't let our partners down when things get tough.
Since the pandemic began, Switzerland has been working towards a global solution to ensure the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, and has already contributed over US$300 million (about 9.9 billion baht) for this purpose. Despite the difficult epidemiological situation, I also made a quite deliberate decision to travel to Southeast Asia and express our solidarity with the Thai people. A few days ago, Swiss Humanitarian Aid delivered 100 respirators and more than one million antigen test kits to Thai authorities.
After 90 years of bilateral relations, it is a matter of course for Switzerland to stand by our Thai friends, especially during these challenging times. Looking back further, we should recall that we embarked on this journey together much earlier than that: the first documented contacts date back to the 17th century, when Swiss missionaries first visited the Kingdom of Siam. Official trade relations were first established in the late 19th century.
Today, Thailand is Switzerland's second largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, and more than 200 Swiss-related companies do business here. Furthermore, with a trade volume of US$10.5 billion last year, Switzerland became Thailand's most important trading partner in Europe. In the future, Switzerland will continue to promote fair and responsible free trade that benefits both countries equally. That is why, together with our partners in the European Free Trade Association, we have stepped up talks on a free trade agreement with Thailand.
Ties between Thailand and Switzerland are about much more than trade. Over 10,000 Swiss nationals live in Thailand today -- the largest Swiss expatriate community in Asia -- and almost 200,000 Swiss tourists visit Thailand every year, making it Switzerland's most popular travel destination in Southeast Asia. The affection is mutual: Switzerland has the honour of being the European country that receives the highest number of Thai tourists. Although some travel restrictions are currently still in place, I am confident that the friendship between Thailand and Switzerland will continue to bear fruit.
We have another reason for optimism: during this trip to mark the 90th anniversary of relations between our two countries, I have learnt that nine is an auspicious number in Thai culture. The Thai word for nine also sounds like the verb gao, which means "to move ahead". What a fitting connotation of hope and optimism for these times! Let us go forward together. As partners. As friends.
Ignazio Cassis is Vice-President of the Swiss Confederation, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.