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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Relations: Creating an Effective Relationship at the Subnational Level

Jun 15 , 2016

Building Subnational China-US Relationships

In his recent article, “Stabilizing Relations through High-level Exchanges,” Shen Dingli, Associate Dean at Fudan University, presents an urgent case for the importance of the national challenges ahead between China and America. Shen’s premise is that America and China must have regular and sustained “high-level exchanges including summit meetings to help boost trust and soothe concerns.”

We concur with Shen’s premise but believe it is only part of the puzzle that is sustaining relations during both good times and bad. Citizens on both sides of the Pacific should be informed by the overlooked pieces: powerful Chinese and American leaders hard at work below the national level.

These connections go beyond “people-to-people” exchanges. Birthed by U.S. President Eisenhower, the “people-to-people” concept continues to play an important role in preventing national fear or contempt of foreigners that was found in the first half of the 20th century. But its influence at the national level is limited.

Nurturing a personal relationship with foreign counterparts through decades of mutual struggle and achievement at the business, university, think tank, provincial and city level creates time to marinate a lasting win-win relationship.

National leaders’ responsibilities compel them to spend no more than a few hours or days at most per year with a counterpart. The time they spend is often scripted and each side must posture for the home audience as well. Their staffs are the ones who manifest the communication. Therefore, little genuine relational substance is generated in such environments.

Clearly, we need these regular high-level meetings, but we need to nurture effective relationships at the subnational level as well. Subnational leadership includes governors, mayors, executives of businesses, universities, and non-profits; thousands are filling the gap between people-to-people exchanges and high-level diplomatic missions.

In America and China, as former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously observed, “all politics is local.”  

Generational Investments

In communities all across America and China, one can find leadership invested both in programs for posterity and in personal relationships, building trust and creating jobs and investment. Often, this leadership is found in the context of a city and state.

We need to begin such relationships long before our respective leaders achieve top positions. We must create a “bumper bowling” approach to international relationships in the early career stages of educators, business leaders, civil servants, diplomats and local and provincial officials. Bumper bowling is played on a regular bowling lane with the gutters protected to keep the ball in the game. This enhances success ten-fold.

Building connections at the subnational level can pay dividends for both nations. This lesson has been reinforced by none other than Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi picked Iowa as the centerpiece of his 2012 vice presidential tour of America because he stayed in Iowa when he was a low-level staffer in 1985 learning about American agriculture. When he returned as President in September 2015, he unexpectedly visited Lincoln High School in Tacoma, WA. In 1993, Xi had been the Communist Party Secretary of the city of Fuzhou and signed the Tacoma-Fuzhou sister city agreement with a port official who had hosted Xi and the delegation for dinner at the time.

Reconnecting with Americans who have hosted him in their home – a powerful tool of citizen diplomacy we all can wield – provides a backdrop for the Chinese leader seeking to emphasize the image of an enduring America-China friendship at a time when our two nations are fierce economic competitors, military rivals, and the only two major powers on the world stage.

Some see these visits as nothing more than a propaganda machine intended to fool an unsuspecting public. Even if this is the truth, Xi demonstrates the need to create opportunities for relationship building and “win-win” successes long before our respective leaders reach the top rung of their national career ladder. We look forward to Chinese officials doing more hosting in their homes in the future.

In the meantime, let’s stop judging or doubting the sincerity of corporate executives who create amazing new technologies to propel both of our nations forward. Let’s start listening to non-profit leaders, philanthropists, educators, and many other China-America bridge-builders who lovingly struggle to solve problems while building trust and bonds of honesty for the future. Such people are found in great numbers in communities far from Beijing and Washington, D.C. 

Making, While Facing, Our Future

Facilitating trust, not only with the presidents, ambassadors, and ministers, but also at the subnational level is critical to obtaining a sustainable relationship between the USA and the PRC. Much work remains! Such trust cannot be nurtured through roots of commerce alone and military tit-for-tat.

International issues between our respective leaders dominate the headlines, yet every day subnational leaders quietly lay the foundation of a strong and lasting relationship. What they are building will outlive any world leader on the stage today.

The Tai Initiative was created to help us build on the opportunity for subnational leaders of both countries to play an active role in shaping a positive outcome for the sake of our two nations, worlds apart but inextricably linked together with the world community.

Mayor Bill Wild of Westland, Michigan is an Advisory Board member with The Tai Initiative and explains his involvement this way, saying, “The world has indeed been flattened; what happens in China does not stay in China. Certainly there are differences between us but as leaders and as everyday citizens we must find ways to connect to build a world where we trust, understand each other and find ways to assure we leave this planet in better shape than we found it for our children and grandchildren.” He continues, “Understanding China and the Chinese people, one-fifth of all humanity, is vital to us as Americans and the world.”

The PRC-USA relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. All major world events will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C., and the outcomes are being nurtured in provinces, cities, small towns and villages in both of our nations today.

We need a clear path to allow the best lessons about connections between our citizens at the subnational level to come forward. The Tai Initiative is pointing out the stones embodied in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, “Mozheshitou guo he” or “Crossing the river by feeling for stones.”

The relationship between our two nations is too important for humanity’s collective future to simply be left to national leaders. There is a path forward—will we follow it?

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