The importance of sub-national diplomacy to Sino-US relations

October 30, 2023 08:31
California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at the University of Hong Kong as part of a week-long trip to China  (Photo:RTHK)

On October 23, Governor of California Gavin Newsom paid a visit to Hong Kong. In an absolutely jam-packed room, he delivered a lecture that was attended by hundreds of students, faculty, and veterans within the HKU faculty – with a stellar host in Professor Gong Peng, who steered the wide-ranging conversation with the Governor onto topics such as California’s successes and track record in passing critical legislation on electric vehicles and forest management/afforestation, as well as Newsom’s vision for global climate cooperation.

A question that I would have liked to ask – had I had the opportunity to – was the extent to which the Governor personally saw Hong Kong-Californian ties as a potential basis and foundation for deepening Sino-American cooperation over climate change, as well as a slew of other issues where common ground between the world’s two largest economies is sorely and urgently needed. I did manage to raise the question with him – albeit briefly – in a 90-second-long conversation at the reception, where he was greeted with exuberance and warmth by a very animated community of HKU members and friends.

Governor Newsom’s visit to China – commencing with the uniquely unrivalled SAR of Hong Kong, and culminating in his meeting with President Xi Jinping – reflects in full the enduring strengths and value of sub-national diplomacy: diplomacy conducted by key actors and politicians presiding over territories that are sub-national (i.e. non-nation-states), usually with a greater degree of dexterity and issue-specific focus as compared with its national-level equivalent.

Sino-American relations are going through an incredibly turbulent period – it doesn’t take a Political Science degree or much intellectual acumen for one to realise that Beijing and Washington do not see eye to eye on a whole roster of issues. Some of these issues are viewed and dubbed by Beijing as matters of domestic concern – though increasingly this ‘domestic issues, none of your business’ approach is echoed by Washington, who has taken to typecasting activities that had conventionally been permitted, if not encouraged, as a part of normal Sino-American cultural and academic exchange, as alleged signs of espionage and national security risk. The term ‘national security’ has been stretched indefinitely and rarefied in volume by security hawks in the once shining City on the Hill (thanks, President Reagan), to justify the hounding and burning of bridge-builders who had once straddled the Pacific with ease.

It is for this reason that Governor Newsom’s visit was of monumental importance. He had come under substantial criticism and flak from certain, ideologically doctrinaire groups that been bent on pressing him to ‘virtue signal’ and engage in the usual theatrics that one can come to expect of any American politician of national significance, when it comes to China. Yet in lieu of opting for the usual, lazy, and fundamentally counterproductive rhetoric that chastised China and would – in turn – embolden staunch conservatives within the system who are devoutly convinced that any and all liberalisation should be equated with capitulation, Newsom opted for a more pragmatic approach, one that was centered around identifying common ground whilst upholding what he viewed to be Californian interests.

Amidst the doom and gloom both perpetrated and felt acutely by Sino-US relations watchers who are increasingly fed up with the posturing and bombast from both sides, sub-national diplomacy could be a glimmer of hope. In encouraging politicians to think seriously about ways by which localities, cities, and even provinces/states can work together, this modus operandi side-steps many of the more intractable, ideologically enmeshed and didactic disputes that have come to characterise the top-level discussions of China and the US. The US, as a whole, may be uncomfortable with the thought that it is displaced or matched by a country that is vastly different in its modus operandi and approach to governance. California, as a state with an admittedly ferociously large GDP (outranking many of the world’s largest economies in scale), has no such ego-centered qualms. Going forward, people-to-people exchanges occurring at HKU and beyond – under the auspices of climate-oriented Track Two initiatives – will indubitably prove to be vital in injecting some signs of vitality and hope into the moribund Sino-US dynamic.

Climate change is a problem that knows and sees no borders. Few countries could emerge unscathed from the decades of revolutionary changes that will take to our sea levels, polar ice caps, as well as the very weather that affects us on a daily basis. If it is indeed the case that national-level endeavours (despite the best efforts of China’s top climate official Xie Zhenhua and the US’ climate Tsar, erstwhile Secretary of State John Kerry) are sabotaged by ideological squabbles and the need for aggressive signalling from the US, then perhaps it is high time for Beijing to turn to engagement with governors of states and mayors of cities in the US – as a means of driving forward productive and constructive dialogue.

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Assistant Professor, HKU