China-Latin America twinning arrangements: What are they and where are they going?

Twinning arrangements between Chinese and Latin American localities are becoming increasingly relevant in a context of great uncertainty in the international system, as this level of government has developed a space for multidimensional exchange. These agreements, which involve the pairing of towns or cities from different geographical and political areas to foster human contact and cultural links, have become a space where decision-makers, both from central and local governments, can develop their international relations with China, but also generate inputs to strengthen their own outward policies.

China-Latin America Twinning

Twinning relations between Latin American countries and China go through two levels: multilateral and bilateral. The first level refers to China’s foreign policy and its action, which has been highlighted in the two White Papers on Latin America. In addition, action is also taken in the framework of the China-Latin America Local Government Cooperation Forum (China-CELAC Forum), which is “aimed at promoting friendly cooperation between local governments on both sides”. 

It is there where the issue of twinning is projected as part of China’s foreign policy, although this does not limit the actual travel between localities. As the expert Ignacio Niño states, this is a “process that has a double nature: on the one hand, it is the cities that are launching themselves into a growing international action. On the other hand, it is also encouraged by the central authorities.

The second level deals with the local relationship itself, the signing of the twinning agreement and the development of relations under certain previously agreed thematic areas. In the case of Latin America, these are usually centered on cultural issues, education, sports, tourism, and trade, but there is also a growing interest in cooperation in science and technology, as well as in mining.

The growth in the number of twinning agreements between Chinese and Latin American localities is notorious and does not escape China’s international logic with other regions. However, the increase has been significant in recent years. Until 2015, there were at least 147 twinning agreements, rising to more than 200 by 2021, not counting those that have signed a Letter of Intent and are in process. 

Some cases have shown very significant increases, such as Argentina (from 17 to more than 40), Chile (from 13 to more than 30), and Uruguay (from 4 to more than 15). In the three cases of the Southern Cone countries, the vast majority of their provinces, regions, or departments have signed twinning agreements. In fact, all South American countries with diplomatic relations with China have at least one twinning agreement, while in Central America and the Caribbean, Mexico, and Cuba stand out, and to a lesser extent Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic. 

The origins of Chinese twinning

Relations between localities in China and abroad were first established in 1973 when Tianjin twinned with the Japanese city of Kobe. This policy is considered to have become part of China’s foreign policy in general, having peaceful coexistence as its foundation and being a link for an international actor increasingly present in the international system.

The sisterly relations of China’s coastal localities are notoriously more developed than those of the west, being this internationalization what allows these localities to generate a “spillover effect” or virtuous circle, and thus reproduce the inequalities, an issue already warned by the Chinese government. This aspect is largely related to the level of development of the coastal provinces and their own city diplomacy.

However, almost all Chinese provinces and autonomous regions have some form of twinning with countries in the region. This strengthens Latin America’s relationship at the regional level within the framework of the China-CELAC Forum, making it a space for dialogue not only with China but also among the countries of the region themselves. Besides finding points in common at the regional level, may also have common interests at the subregional level.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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