The Federal Council launches a strategy focused on South East Asia

At its meeting of 15 February 2023, the Federal Council adopted the first strategy focused on South East Asia. With thematic focus areas derived from Switzerland's foreign policy, the strategy defines objectives and measures to be realised by 2026. Peace and security, prosperity, sustainability and digitalisation are the topics that will structure the work to deepen relations with the 11 countries of this dynamic region.

South East Asia is experiencing dynamic growth. Between 2023 and 2026, Switzerland wants to further strengthen its relations with the countries of this region in order to be able to face the challenges of the future. © Shutterstock

In March 1862, Friedrich Frey-Hérosé, head of the Department of Trade and Customs (the predecessor of the EAER), submitted to the Federal Council a preliminary assessment favourable to the opening of a new consulate. In his assessment, he draws attention "to the growing importance of European trade with East Asian countries" – commercial ties including Swiss elements, as "among the many businesses established there, we find several Swiss companies through which the sale of Swiss products is secured." In the same year, Switzerland opened a consulate in Manila, its first in Asia.

160 years later, the same conclusion holds true: the importance of South East Asia is growing. Taken together, the 11 countries that make up the region form the world's fifth largest economy. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an intergovernmental organisation of the countries of the region, is the third largest economic area in Asia after China and India, not to mention the region's 680 million inhabitants spread across nearly 6,000 kilometres and its rich natural, cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity. These powerful dynamics offer Switzerland many opportunities to promote and diversify its interests on the Asian continent.

A bilateral and multilateral strategy

The strategy at hand is the culmination of a broad consultation with all stakeholders, both within and outside of the Federal Administration, including the relevant federal departments and representatives of the private sector and civil society. It lays out the framework for a coherent implementation of the Federal Council's foreign policy priorities in South East Asia. This will be done both bilaterally, through the personalised deepening of relations with each of the 11 states in the region, and multilaterally, particularly through Switzerland's involvement in ASEAN. The present strategy's approach is structured on the basis of the four thematic focus areas of Switzerland's foreign policy strategy: peace and security, prosperity, sustainability and digitalisation. It also has a fifth focus area – consolidating support for the approximately 18,600 Swiss citizens living in the region. These focus areas can be illustrated by means of examples.

Map with the eleven countries that make up South East Asia: Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Philippines and Timor Leste.
South East Asia consists of eleven countries. Together they form the world's fifth largest economy. © FDFA

Peace and security

A stable security situation is essential for the region's economic and social development. Switzerland contributes to the prevention and resolution of armed conflicts in South East Asia using the instruments at its disposal.

Human rights are a key priority. Through its diplomacy, Switzerland furthers the freedom of expression, the abolition of the death penalty, the prevention of torture and the protection of minorities in the region.

Respect for international law is also one of the core areas to be consolidated. Switzerland's 2023–24 seat on the UN Security Council provides an opportunity to strengthen cooperation in this domain.

One example is work to strengthen social cohesion in Myanmar

A temple and a house in the mist of Rakhine State, Myanmar, at sunset.
Since 2017, the state of Rakhine has been challenged with intercommunal tensions and violence. Switzerland supports local organizations there to promote social cohesion. © Keystone

Switzerland supports local organisations in Rakhine State, on the western coast of the country – organisations that offer the population spaces for intercultural understanding and dialogue with the aim of strengthening social cohesion between the two main communities, Buddhist and Muslim. An early warning system has also been put in place to detect potential outbreaks of violence or hate speech. In addition, training is organised to enable the different communities to fact-check the information disseminated. 


South East Asia is one of the world's most economically dynamic regions. There is thus a growing potential there for Switzerland's economic interests. South East Asia's share of Swiss foreign trade is now 4%, up from 2% in 2000. About one third of Swiss capital in Asia is invested in South East Asia.

To continue to harness this growing potential, Swiss companies need favourable framework conditions. This is why Switzerland is striving to further improve market access through free trade agreements.

Switzerland also works to help improve economic and social prospects in South East Asia's poorest countries, in particular through the development cooperation programmes of the SDC and SECO.

One example is the free trade agreements under negotiation

Cargo ships in the port of Singapore sailing in the same direction.
The volume of trade between Switzerland and the countries of the region has multiplied in recent decades. © Keystone

There are already free trade agreements in place with the Philippines, Singapore and, since 2021, with Indonesia. Switzerland continues to pursue this approach, working towards the conclusion of such agreements with Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Effective sustainability provisions in the future free trade agreement with Malaysia should allow for improvements in the country's environmental situation. Like in the case of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Indonesia, these provisions should help to promote sustainable palm oil production, among other things. 


Switzerland contributes to sustainable development in South East Asia within the framework of the 2030 Agenda. It supports climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Natural hazard management is crucial in this region, which is particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the climate.

Another focus of Swiss commitment is sustainable natural resource management. Switzerland contributes to sustainable water management and promotes cross-border cooperation in this area. It also supports measures to promote sustainable food systems and improve the protection of forests. 

One example is work in Laos, the water tower of South East Asia

Women steer boats carrying food on the Mekong River.
The Mekong River is an integral part of life in Southeast Asia. In South Vietnam, floating markets allow people to buy food. © Keystone

The Mekong River flows through or along the borders of nearly 1,900 kilometres of Laotian territory. As a transport route, a source of food and a generator of hydropower, the river is crucial for the country. But it is not inexhaustible. Climate change and the increasing number of dams are causing its level to fluctuate. Overfishing and pollution are threatening its ecological equilibrium. They represent a considerable risk for the area's inhabitants.

In particular, Switzerland is working to build the state's capacity to use hydropower sustainably and is promoting sustainable, cross-border access to and management of the river.


South East Asia is an emerging innovation hub in digital technologies. In this regard, Switzerland seeks to establish regular dialogue with selected South East Asian countries on digital governance and digital commerce facilitation.

Digital technologies also offer new opportunities for scientific cooperation and for promoting inclusive and sustainable development through their innovative uses.

One example is partnership with Singapore and science diplomacy

A young girl wearing a veil pulls a motherboard out of a machine.
As here in Malaysia, digital technologies are enabling innovation and making inclusive and sustainable development possible. © Keystone

At the cutting edge of innovation, Singapore is an ideal partner for structured and regular cooperation in digitalisation and science diplomacy.

In particular, Switzerland would like to involve Singaporean partners more closely in the work of the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA), a foundation at the crossroads of science and diplomacy.

Services for citizens

Some 18,600 Swiss citizens live in South East Asia. The region is also highly popular with Swiss tourists. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, almost half a million visitors from Switzerland set out to discover the ASEAN countries each year.

With this strategy, Switzerland will continue to provide Swiss citizens abroad with effective support tailored to their needs.

One example is work in Thailand, the homeland of the Swiss in Asia

A tourist takes a selfie on a crowded street with flags hanging above.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism accounted for about a fifth of Thailand's economic performance. © Keystone

With around 9,600 Swiss residents, Thailand is home to the largest Swiss community in Asia. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the country also welcomed more than 200,000 Swiss tourists each year.

Switzerland is committed to providing its citizens in Thailand with effective support tailored to their needs. Regular consular dialogue with the Thai authorities is part of these efforts to improve the legal framework for long-term stays in the country. 

Diversifying its relations with the Asia-Pacific

The South East Asia Strategy makes balanced use of the many opportunities offered by the overall development of the Asia-Pacific. In this sense, it complements the China Strategy, adopted by the Federal Council in 2021.

Switzerland is represented in several multilateral forums throughout the entire Asia-Pacific. It is strengthening its cooperation with South East Asian countries and pursuing its objectives of diversifying relations throughout the Asia-Pacific. For example, Switzerland has been a member of the Asian Development Bank since 1967. In addition to its role as a donor, it supports specific projects focused in areas including renewable energy and disaster management. It is also a founding member of another multilateral development bank covering the Asia-Pacific – the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Switzerland also supports the intergovernmental Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), whose secretariat is located in Singapore. Through concrete projects, Switzerland supports the efforts to deepen ties between Europe and the Asia-Pacific at the level of the authorities and civil society. Also based in Singapore is the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asia-Pacific's preeminent, annual security summit. Switzerland and the countries of South East Asia are regularly represented there at senior level.

Multilateral engagement with ASEAN

ASEAN is the main multilateral organisation in South East Asia. It is composed of all the states in the region. Timor-Leste has had observer status since the end of 2022. Representatives of the member countries meet regularly to exchange views and address common challenges. Moreover, ASEAN is able to bring the relevant decision-makers both for South East Asia and for the broader Asia-Pacific to the table on a regular basis.

Since 2016, Switzerland has cultivated a Sectoral Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN. In this role, Switzerland has privileged access to high-level meetings, for example those of foreign and economic ministers. Part of the new strategy is devoted to strengthening this relationship.

In addition to consolidating the already established political exchanges, Switzerland also aims to develop technical cooperation with ASEAN, particularly in the areas of digitalisation, vocational education and training, disaster prevention, human rights and the environment – topics in keeping with the values and interests of Swiss foreign policy.

Switzerland enjoys an excellent reputation in South East Asia thanks to its innovation, competitiveness, commitment to development and humanitarian aid, and credibility as an international actor. There are also numerous personal and family ties between the Swiss people and the inhabitants of South East Asia. This strategy aims to diversify Switzerland's foreign policy while consolidating its relations with South East Asian states. 

Enhanced coherence in foreign policy

In its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23, published at the end of January 2020, the Federal Council set out an overarching approach, informed by an analysis of the global environment and the developments and trends likely to affect Switzerland in the years to come.

In a cascading process, Switzerland's priorities are implemented through geographical and thematic strategies. With this approach, the Federal Council is strengthening the coherence of Swiss foreign policy. The South East Asia Strategy is one of the geographical strategies, which help to implement Switzerland's foreign policy in different parts of the world. Thematic strategies, such as the International Cooperation Strategy, set out priorities in given areas.

Further information on the strategic cascade of Swiss foreign policy

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