By Jieh-Yung Lo
When Wagga Wagga City Council announced last week that it would end its sister-city relationship with the Chinese city of Kunming after 30 years — citing concerns over coronavirus and Communism — it didn’t take long for the Chinese Government to respond.
State-owned newspaper The Global Times accused the council of being an American “mouthpiece”, but has since removed the original editorial. The Chinese Consulate in Sydney also responded.
Anger at the decision did not stop there.
Local Wagga Wagga community leaders, Chinese-Australians and even Nationals’ leader Michael McCormack, expressed concern and the Council has now announced it will reconsider the plan. This will be discussed at an extraordinary council meeting on Wednesday.
So why such a big reaction from a decision by a small Australian city?
For a start the Chinese are unlikely to view Wagga’s move to end all agreements and friendship programs with Kunming as the unilateral action of one Australian local council.
The plan, which would have caused some diplomatic embarrassment for both Beijing and Canberra, threatened China’s view of Australia as a whole, and undermined much-needed diplomacy at a time when Australia needs to strengthen the relationship with its largest trading partner.
Cooperation not confrontation
Australia’s view of China has been growing increasingly fraught.
From being first to ban Chinese technology giant Huawei from its 5G network and deepening competition for impact in the Pacific, to allegations of improper influence in Australian domestic politics, Australia has emerged in recent years as a major critic of China’s growing global influence.
The coronavirus outbreak appears to have created a new forum in which to air criticisms of China — from references to COVID-19 as a “Chinese disease” to a surge in virus-inspired racism directed at Chinese-Australians, and those of Asian appearance living in Australia.
There is a growing culture that discourages discussion around areas of collaboration and commonality with China.
While Australia most certainly needs to defend its national interests and push back strongly against China when necessary it is wrong to use the spread of COVID-19 as an excuse to engage in political point scoring.
Now is the time to seek deeper cooperation with China, not to step back and engage in unnecessary confrontation.
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Sister-city relationships have value
Sister-city relationships might seem to rank far down the diplomacy food chain, but I have seen first-hand how they can build good will, support respect and understanding between culturally and politically different nations.
And I saw how seriously our Chinese counterparts take sister relationships and how deeply they are valued.
Australia has more than 500 global sister city relationships. More than 100 of them are with Chinese cities.
From 2013-15 I co-initiated and facilitated such a relationship between Hobart and Xi’an — China’s ancient capital and starting point of the Silk Route that built connections between Central Asia and the Middle East. These days most Australians know Xi’an as the home of the terracotta warriors.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan visited Tasmania in 2014. (Supplied: Chin Communications)
Chinese culture and tradition greatly values trust and relationships. Sister-city connections offer powerful symbolism that can be used to counteract rhetoric that blames China for the coronavirus pandemic.
The City of Sydney used a similar connection with Wuhan in February when Lord Mayor Clover Moore offered to assist with the provision of medical equipment if needed.
The idea of these relationships is to highlight what cities have in common. In the case of Hobart and Xi’an this includes growth potential to serve as leading economic and cultural hubs for their respective countries, especially in the areas of agriculture, research and development, education, cultural exchange and tourism.
Retracting sister-city relationships, like what was considered in Wagga Wagga, risks being seen as reactionary.
Certainly China’s comments in The Global Times suggest such a move is seen as being supportive of the rhetoric of figures like Donald Trump who have accused China of “lying” about the coronavirus outbreak.
Local residents and communities in Wagga Wagga were quick to realise the Council’s announcement could impact not just their city, but also Australia’s bilateral relationship with China, and broader messages to the Australian community that undermine cultural diversity and social cohesion.
Irrespective of the different politics and political systems between Australia and China, sister-city relationships help to build a network of resources to share knowledge, business and trade opportunities.
But do they really work?
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RMIT University’s research report Australia-China Sister Cities: Seizing Opportunities Together found that while Australian entities such as local councils and business delegates involved in these relationships felt goodwill and friendship between sister cities, there is a need to improve economic and business outcomes.
Some Australian cities have bucked the trend — with clear strategic objectives, understanding their motivations and interests, financial and staffing resources devoted to the relationship, was successful in the development of export markets in China for local Australian businesses.
Over time, sister-city and sister-state relationships have proven to be important drivers in promoting economic, cultural and educational outcomes and on occasions serving as a springboard to enhancing bilateral ties at the national levels.
An example of this was President Xi Jinping’s decision to visit Tasmania, and only Tasmania, after the 2014 G20 Brisbane Summit. The reason was Tasmania’s 39-year-old sister state relationship with Fujian province, a province where Xi was once governor.
Former Tasmanian Premier Doug Lowe in China in 1980. He was the first Tasmanian leader to visit the super-power and signed a sister state agreement with Fujian province which was later strengthened by Jim Bacon. (Supplied)
Another major driver for Xi was to fulfil a promise he made to late Tasmanian Premier Jim Bacon, whom Xi awarded honorary citizenship of Fujian province, as a way to recognise his contribution in strengthening the sister state relationship.
Xi’s visit brought international attention to Tasmania, including interest from Chinese citizens to visit the state.
Relationship stronger than rhetoric
Responses from representatives of the Wagga Wagga community demonstrated the sister-city relationship is stronger than political rhetoric.
This demonstrates the very best of Australia — a tolerant and inclusive society that embraces multiculturalism, diversity and engagement.
We shouldn’t turn our backs on our friends when the going gets tough.
Jieh-Yung Lo is a writer, commentator and director of the ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership
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