Sister city

5th China-US Sister Cities Conference Sheds Light on US-China Grassroot Cooperation

Asia China

The 5th China-US Sister Cities Conference, held in Suzhou City, successfully bridged the United States and China, opening meaningful cooperation in grassroot diplomacy.

Bridging Oceans and Ideologies: The 5th China-US Sister Cities Conference

The recent 5th China-US Sister Cities Conference hosted in Suzhou City, stands as a pivotal moment, strengthening the bridge of grassroots diplomacy between the United States and China. Held in Kunshan, Suzhou City, under the theme "Build Green Cities for the People," the conference was co-hosted by the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and the Jiangsu Provincial People’s Government. It was attended by over 110 US guests, including nearly 30 county supervisors and city mayors from 22 states, along with nearly 100 representatives from more than 10 provinces and cities in China.

During the conference, participants engaged in discussions on three major topics: economy and employment, education and youth, and climate and environment. Additionally, one-to-one exchanges between sister cities were a key feature. These discussions and exchanges were essential, especially in the face of challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and cooling bilateral ties, which have led to a near-complete halt in cultural and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries in recent years.

For instance, the partnership between Xiamen in East China and Miami stands as an exemplary model of fostering rich exchanges in sectors like education, tourism, and scientific research. Xiamen University and the University of Miami have been instrumental, orchestrating collaborative academic courses, seminars, and student exchange programs. Similarly, the collaboration between the Tianjin Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School in New York has significantly contributed to artistic endeavors and educational advancements in the arts, paving the way for new avenues of cultural engagement between the two countries. That is why the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated its 50th anniversary with a concert in Beijing, followed by performances in Tianjin, Suzhou, and Shanghai during the conference season. Their music served as a testament to the enduring friendship between the Chinese and American people, perpetuating the tradition of non-governmental cultural exchanges through the universal language of music. These endeavors underscore the dynamic and strong bonds of sister city relationships between China and the US, significantly contributing to the enhancement of mutual understanding and cooperative efforts.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his message to the conference, emphasized the importance of sister-city relationships as crucial platforms for deepening friendship and achieving cooperation. He noted that these relationships, formed since the first pair was twinned in 1979, have resulted in 284 pairs of sister provinces/states and cities between China and the United States.

National Implications: US and Chinese Perspectives

For the United States, the conference represented an intricate balance between global cooperation and navigating geopolitical tensions. On one hand, it's an opportunity to engage with China on global issues like climate change and sustainable development. On the other, it's a delicate dance given existing geopolitical tensions, particularly over trade and security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region.

This grassroots form of diplomacy serves as a buffer against the fluctuating dynamics of US-China relations. By fostering local-level ties, the United States can maintain a channel of communication and cooperation even amid national-level disputes. Moreover, it aligns with the United States’ strategic pivot to Asia, recognizing China's central role in regional dynamics.

China’s approach is multi-layered. Xi Jinping’s emphasis on locality-level exchanges indicates a strategy to build alliances that might influence the United States’ domestic perspectives on China. By fostering positive relations at the city and state level, China can create a more conducive environment for its national interests.

The focus on green cooperation also aligns with China’s ambition to lead in global environmental governance. By engaging the US at the city and state level, China can promote its image as a responsible global actor, countering narratives of its rise as a disruptive force.

The Road Ahead

The recent conference has cast a spotlight on the evolving dynamics of US-China relations, underscoring the strategic role of local-level exchanges amidst frequent hurdles in high-level diplomatic engagements. These locality-level initiatives, such as sister city programs, serve as vital conduits for fostering mutual understanding and cooperation. They form a resilient undercurrent that has the potential to navigate the turbulent waters of national-level discord. However, it is important to recognize that these grassroots efforts are not a universal remedy for the various issues that mar bilateral ties. Persistent challenges such as trade imbalances, intellectual property disputes, and escalating tensions in geopolitically sensitive areas like the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait continue to loom large. While sister city engagements contribute positively, they cannot substitute for the indispensable high-level dialogues and negotiations - such as the APEC summit in San Francisco - that are necessary for resolving these deep-rooted disputes.

The sister city initiative unveils distinct opportunities for both the United States and China. For the United States, this initiative represents a strategic avenue to engage with China on a foundation of cooperative strength. It offers a unique channel to subtly influence Chinese policies and practices by capitalizing on shared interests - climate change, global health, and youth empowerment - and grassroots-level diplomacy. This approach not only strengthens bilateral relations but also helps in molding perceptions and fostering a more collaborative environment. On the other hand, for China, participating in these programs presents an opportunity to reshape its international image, particularly in the eyes of the American public. It is a chance for China to demonstrate its willingness to engage constructively within a rules-based international framework and to dispel some of the apprehensions surrounding its global role.

Nonetheless, the road ahead is fraught with challenges. The real impact of these subnational engagements on swaying broader national policies remains an open question. There is a tangible risk that the often volatile nature of US-China relations at the national level could overshadow these grassroots efforts. Such a scenario could relegate the positive outcomes of these engagements to mere symbolic acts, rather than being acknowledged as substantial contributions to a more stable and cooperative bilateral relationship. In essence, while the sister city initiative opens a pathway of opportunity, its effectiveness in bridging the gap between local goodwill and national policy shifts remains to be fully assessed and realized.

The 5th China-US Sister Cities Conference is more than a diplomatic event; it’s a testament to the power of local-level engagement in an era of global challenges. As the United States and China navigate their complex relationship, these sister city ties offer a beacon of hope, a reminder that cooperation is possible even when national narratives diverge.

As global challenges necessitate collective action, these initiatives highlight the potential of sub-national diplomacy. The true measure of their success, however, will be their ability to influence national policies and contribute to a stable and cooperative US-China relationship. Looking ahead, how will these local ties shape the broader landscape of US-China relations? As both nations look towards an uncertain future, the paths paved in Kunshan may well lead to a shared journey of mutual understanding and respect.

SeungHwan (Shane) Kim is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, where he is focusing on security and statecraft in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Matthew Willis is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in International Relations, Economics, Government, and East Asian Studies.

Mrittika Guha Sarkar is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service. She is further an Associated Research Fellow at the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden.