China has been promoting sister-city alliance between selected Chinese cities and cities all around the world, ostensibly to promote people-to-people connectivity. But apprehensions have been expressed that Chinese motivation exceeds the promotion of cultural ties and it has a larger geostrategic objective.
· Recent appointment of Li Songtian, the former ambassador of South Africa as the President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) further strengthens this belief. CPAFFC is the nodal agency responsible for forging these alliances. Though it is described as a kind of non-governmental organization, it’s closely associated with both the ruling Communist Party of China and the government. It is being said this new job has raised his position in the Foreign Ministry and he is probably being rewarded for being part of the so-called “wolf warriors” breed of diplomats. During his stint at Pretoria, he had been quiet vocal about the trade war with the United States, and had even started a Twitter account where he riled especially the right-wing media there. That he has several decades of experience in serving the Party in China fits the role of directing China’s foreign policy towards friendly nations.
· In India and its neighborhood, for example, China has been quietly forging sister-city alliances with those countries that fit within its BRI expansionist policies, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, besides India. China Communist Party (CPC) proposed to Bangladesh in May this year that it will get help in fighting Covid-19 pandemic if the country forms sister-city alliances with select Chinese cities or/and helps with China’s disinformation campaign about Covid-19.
The CPC proposal was to form sister-city alliances with six Bangladeshi cities including Dhaka North. Overtly it looks like a friendly gesture but considering growing Chinese investments in Bangladesh in recent years and Chinese companies involved in roadways projects in Dhaka itself, there may be more than what meets the eye.
Amidst the steady increase in Covid-19 infections in Bangladesh, the impoverished country is particularly vulnerable to various challenges to its dilapidated health infrastructure and small economy. At such times, China is luring by promising technical and financial support to curb Covid-19 disease, dengue and similar diseases if Bangladesh agreed on its proposal.
Similar, arrangements in India’s neighborhood with countries now heavily burdened by Chinese debts is visible (Table 1). In Nepal, high-level of political activism shown by China in recent times has also coincided with rising number of sister-city alliances with major Nepalese cities which are strategically located to serve Chinese interests, such as Kathmandu and Pokhara.
In July, Chinese state media Xinhua proudly propagated about Nepal’s cities receiving medical supplies from various Chinese cities with which Nepali cities have established sister-city relations to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Pokhara in western Nepal had received medical goods including surgical masks, Personal protective equipment (PPEs), gloves and shoes covers from three Chinese cities with which it has sister city relations, Linzhi, Kunming and Guangzhou. Bharatpur Metropolitan City in southern Chitwan district received medical supplies worth 100,000 Yuan (about $14,140) from Golmud City of Qinghai province.
Table 1: China’s sister cities in India and its neighbourhood
|Chinese city||Local city|
|Guangzhou||Hambantota, Sri Lanka|
|Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka|
|Colombo, Sri Lanka|
· China’s ‘citizen diplomacy’, ‘covid diplomacy’, etc. are all part of its expansionist strategy to instill confidence in the host countries and then use the opportunities to its own advantage. In 2019, during the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Li Xiaolin, then President of CPAFFC said that, “Sister city relations play an important role in boosting cooperation and exchanges among Chinese and foreign cities under the framework of the BRI.” She spoke about how Chinese cities have established 2,629 sister cities and provinces overseas and have formed sister city relations with more than 700 cities in countries involved in the BRI. Such statements coming from the head of the nodal organization managing the country’s ‘sister-city’ relationship should definitely ring alarm bells regarding it motives.
· Globally, many countries seem to have woken up to the fact that for China, via these “town twining” means for cooperation in education and culture seem to be the success stories of China’s efforts to increase its footprint in the region. The Swedish cities of Linköping, Lulea, and Vasteras have ended official cooperation deals with Guangzhou, Xi’an, and Jinan. The municipality of Vara is reportedly also considering ending its sister city agreement with Huangshan. Gothenburg, Sweden’s industrial hub, has also probably let their sister city relationship with Shanghai expire in early May, when it was up for renewal. They had been twining since 2003. Earlier, Beijing had canceled its sister city agreement with Prague after the city council approved a similar agreement with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
· It is about time that India and its neighbors, indeed any countries for that matter, also wake up to analyze the true Chinese intentions behind such soft diplomacy, primarily when the global geostrategic order is facing strains because of rising completion between China and other superpowers.
(The author is a Chinese human rights campaigner and a dissident based in the US who was imprisoned in China. The views expressed are personal)