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Sister cities an underused tool in Taiwan’s diplomacy: Panel

Panelists discuss lessons learned from Kaohsiung, Seattle’s 30 years of city sisterhood

Love River in Kaohsiung.

Love River in Kaohsiung. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — In a webinar on Thursday (Aug. 26), panelists discussed how to optimize sister city arrangements and how this alternative form of diplomacy can help Taiwan overcome diplomatic isolation and deepen ties with the international community.

The webinar, the second in a series co-hosted by Taiwan NextGen Foundation and 9DASHLINE, included city officials and academics from the U.S. and Taiwan.


The conversation focused mainly on ties between Seattle and Kaohsiung, which are celebrating 30 years of city sisterhood this year. Sports exchanges in recent years include a Seattle team coming to southern Taiwan to compete against Kaohsiung officials in a dragon boat race, according to Tzeng Min-huei (曾敏惠), chief of international affairs for the Kaohsiung City Government.

“I’ll let you guess who the winner was!” said Tzeng.

Stacey Jehlik, international affairs director of the City of Seattle, made a distinction between people-to-people ties at the civic level and city-to-city ties at the official level, adding that her city takes a bottom-up approach, where local associations take the lead in developing ties with other municipalities around the world.

Jehlik said city governments learn much from their counterparts around the world when it comes to tackling governance challenges such as climate change, housing, and inequality. This governance exchange is not always as visible to the public though, since people-to-people engagement is usually based on culture and education, she added.

However, in Taiwan it is city bureaucrats that typically initiate relations with other cities, and civil societies get involved later, said Tzeng. Taiwan’s city governments often have proportionally larger budgets than their counterparts in the U.S., the panel concurred, which may be a factor.

Not being the capital of Taiwan, Kaohsiung places particular importance on sister city partnerships, Tzeng said. “Most of the diplomatic corps are located in Taipei, so we are working hard to attract more international partners to discover our vibrant port city.”

Yet Tzeng said Kaohsiung now conducts several projects with prospective partner cities to test the potential before making the partnership official. The panel concurred that the number of new sister arrangements is slowing down globally as cities realize the difficulty in sustaining meaningful exchanges.

Major challenges remain

Caution must be taken not to become over-reliant on city diplomacy though, said Sara Newland, assistant professor of government at Smith College. Currently, many sister arrangements between American and Taiwanese cities lie inactive and do little to connect officials or communities, she added.

The pandemic has not helped either. Tzeng admitted that the public is not always aware of what sister cities Kaohsiung has around the world.

To respond to the lack of travel during the pandemic, Kaohsiung has sent pop-up exhibition stands to its sister cities that inform passersby about their international partner. She added that her department is now setting up stands exhibiting those same cities in Kaohsiung.

The panel agreed there are valuable lessons to share from the pandemic. “If we have lessons to share, then we have a responsibility to share them,” said Jehlik.

For example, Jeffrey Hou, an professor of the Taiwan Studies program at the University of Washington in Seattle, said Kaohsiung is an example of how density can be managed during a pandemic.

Hou said the surge in webinars during the pandemic era has enabled more regular contact between city officials around the world, which helps them learn from one another.

Jehlik agreed, saying Seattle has seen an increase of "virtual visits" from partnered cities and that this has dramatically lowered the cost of interacting with a far-flung city, allowing smaller municipalities with fewer resources to engage with Seattle too.

China factor

Newland said the specter of the “One China policy” still looms large over city diplomacy.

She cited the example of Shanghai severing its agreement with Prague in retaliation for the latter's becoming a sister city of Taipei.
Newland said that in the U.S., officials in smaller cities in particular can be intimidated by Chinese threats, which can make them cautious about reaching out to Taiwanese cities, despite there being no law that prevents them from doing so.

“I feel cities around the world are at a moment of reckoning regarding relations with the PRC [People's Republic of China]”, said Newland.

Newland said this recalibration extends throughout society, with more American universities pushing back against Confucius Institutes, and that the same holds true for U.S. cities.

“I think many people have come to view Taiwan favorably in the past 18 months, even if they knew little about the country before,” she remarked, adding that she expects more American cities to partner with cities in Taiwan rather than in China.

Cities have not historically had to make that choice before, but whether they are pushed to choose between the two sides will be up to Chinese authorities, she said.

Hou said universities should also play a strong role in promoting city ties. He said exchange programs help cultivate personal ties for the next generation of leaders, citing the example of Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, who was originally an exchange student to Taiwan.

The Taipei-Prague partnership is one of the most successful, with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and Hrib having visited one another’s cities and showing strong support for one another throughout the pandemic, such as their efforts to send masks and vaccines, respectively.

Yet Taiwan needs to focus more on building a global coalition of citizen support, not just among friendly politicians, said Newland. “If citizens don’t care about the country, their elected officials will not either,” she added.

The panelists agree that city diplomacy remains an underutilized tool for increasing Taiwan’s profile.

Chen Kuan-ting (陳冠廷), CEO of Taiwan NextGen Foundation, said that "as globalization and urbanization accelerate, city visibility is critically important for a country's soft power. City diplomacy is especially vital for Taiwan if it is to open up more space for itself on the global stage and avoid international isolation."