U.S. – China City Diplomacy: Sister City Contributions to Peace, Commerce, and Governance

Graphic detailing US-China sister city relationships on a map of the two countries

Contributed by Ben Leffel

In 1993, my late mentor, economist Richard V. Knight, presented a lecture titled “Global & Local Cities” to an audience of scholars and city officials in Venice, Italy in which he described the knowledge and technology transmission made possible by Sister Cities International’s worldwide bilateral exchange programs. The validity of his points still stand today, but are especially relevant when looking at the ways in which sister city relationships have helped connect countries like China to the rest of the world.

The immediate economic benefits of sister city connections with China have long been underappreciated, but cannot be ignored: As myself and other scholars note in a 2016 study commissioned by the United Kingdom Government Office for Science, UK-China sister city connections with China produce direct entrepreneurial collaborations that introduce local businesses to distributors between the two countries. In fact, the level of trade between a given Chinese city and a city in a foreign country tended to skyrocket immediately following the establishment of a sister city in that foreign country.

Economic Benefits to U.S. Cities

The economic benefits for Chinese sister city connections are just as true for American cities. In fact, trade has been one of the oldest facets of U.S.-China sister city relationships, beginning just after the end of World War II. There are a couple of examples that show this:

  • In 2009, the economic impact of Columbus, Ohio’s sister city relationship with Hefei, China showed economic gain to the tune of $1.2 million in just one year. (source: Leffel, 2010)
  • The small city of Wilmington, North Carolina established a sister city relationship with port city Dandong, China in 1987 by leveraging its location as North Carolina’s chief Deepwater port location. This led to Dandong opening a trade office in Wilmington and a new “sister-port” agreement between the two cities. In terms of impact, the agreement was an opportunity for Wilmington to compete in international commerce with larger American cities. (source: Bulletin of Municipal Foreign Policy)
  • Most Chinese trade and investment-related government agencies are familiar with and supportive of Illinois’ China trade office because Illinois has built many sister city relationships in China. (source: Leffel, 2013)

As U.S. and Chinese cities continue to network and share resources through sister city relationships, cities and higher levels of government can leverage these connections to not only promote peace, but to expand trade for the economic benefit of all cities and countries involved.

The Wider Impact

Economic benefit is not the only reason we should encourage and uplift sister city relationships. The intercultural, educational, and peace-sustaining qualities of sister city ties are felt strongly on an individual level.

While conducting research for my undergraduate thesis, I encountered countless stories of Americans’ personal views and perceptions of China being transformed for the better, careers being built, the establishment of inter-institutional partnerships from universities to libraries to laboratories, and lifelong relationships forged—all thanks to strong U.S.-China sister city relationships. The contributions of sister city programs on a state, community, and individual level is precisely the peace-sustaining force of people-to-people diplomacy envisioned by Eisenhower.

What’s Next for U.S.-China Sister Cities?

Building subnational-global engagement between China and the United States is more important now than it ever has been. For instance, the global climate governance leadership gap left by the disengagement of the federal government from fighting climate change offers an opportunity for U.S.-China sister city relationships to provide a crucial supporting role.

Opportunities are already available to take action against climate change on a local level: California and China established multiple bilateral cooperation agreements on low carbon technology and climate governance efforts in which Californian and Chinese cities connect to bolster mutual emissions reduction policy efforts and green tech innovation. Pre-existing U.S.-China sister city relationships can provide the infrastructure needed to accomplish such efforts.

Whether its U.S.-China sister city relationships or otherwise, sister cities connections constitute an elemental force in solving global problems, sustaining peace and building prosperity.