Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

State Legislation Might Backfire on U.S.-China Relations

Beijing doesn’t understand local governments are independent of Washington.

By , the China affairs analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy, and , a former resident junior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visits Iowa state leaders and residents.
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (second to the right) stands with (from left) then-Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, then-Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, and the Kimberley family near Maxwell, Iowa, on Feb. 16, 2012. Steve Pope/Office of the Iowa Governor via Getty Images

On July 1, Florida State House Bill (HB) 7017 “Foreign Influence” will become law. The purpose of the 23-page bill is to combat malign influence from authoritarian countries seeking to meddle or interfere in Florida state-level politics. The bill would require greater scrutiny on gifts and grants to Florida state agencies and political subdivisions from a “foreign country of concern.” According to Chris Sprowls, speaker of the Florida State House of Representatives, HB 7017 is one of “multiple” bills in the current Florida State House legislative session that will address all forms of malign influence from authoritarian actors, including theft, interference, corporate espionage, and others. These countries of concern include the China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, and Syria—but it’s clear which country the lawmakers have most in mind.

HB 7017 is just one of several pieces of legislation and other actions taken recently by state and local governments in the United States to combat malign influence from authoritarian countries. To be sure, China in particular aims to subvert democratic norms and institutions by harnessing several asymmetric tools, including economic coercion, information manipulation, and cyber operations. U.S. President Joe Biden has singled out this rivalry as the “biggest geopolitical test” facing the United States and as such has already taken numerous steps during its first 100 days in office to address it. Such steps are thus grounded in the serious and legitimate challenges these states pose to the United States and its democratic allies—but it could also prove counterproductive.

On July 1, Florida State House Bill (HB) 7017 “Foreign Influence” will become law. The purpose of the 23-page bill is to combat malign influence from authoritarian countries seeking to meddle or interfere in Florida state-level politics. The bill would require greater scrutiny on gifts and grants to Florida state agencies and political subdivisions from a “foreign country of concern.” According to Chris Sprowls, speaker of the Florida State House of Representatives, HB 7017 is one of “multiple” bills in the current Florida State House legislative session that will address all forms of malign influence from authoritarian actors, including theft, interference, corporate espionage, and others. These countries of concern include the China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, and Syria—but it’s clear which country the lawmakers have most in mind.

HB 7017 is just one of several pieces of legislation and other actions taken recently by state and local governments in the United States to combat malign influence from authoritarian countries. To be sure, China in particular aims to subvert democratic norms and institutions by harnessing several asymmetric tools, including economic coercion, information manipulation, and cyber operations. U.S. President Joe Biden has singled out this rivalry as the “biggest geopolitical test” facing the United States and as such has already taken numerous steps during its first 100 days in office to address it. Such steps are thus grounded in the serious and legitimate challenges these states pose to the United States and its democratic allies—but it could also prove counterproductive.

Although the federal government engages in foreign policy through centralized bodies like the U.S. State Department, the decentralized nature of governance in the United States means different local, state, territorial, and tribal governments often engage in “paradiplomacy.” Subnational or regional governments carry out paradiplomacy to advance their own interests, often outside of the purview of a national government.

In the United States, paradiplomacy is very common and often innocuous as several states and cities engage with foreign subnational counterparts or even foreign central governments. For example, the state of California has worked extensively with the European Union to cooperate on carbon markets; the city of Los Angeles has engaged with various countries around the world on the upcoming 2028 Summer Olympics; and Puerto Rico’s State Department “is responsible for encouraging cultural, political and economic relations” between the territory and foreign countries. Nonetheless, state and local legislatures lack the experience and knowledge to tackle key challenges to democracy. For instance, one example where paradiplomacy could have gone awry is when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2017 and presented him with an official state clock. Although Abbott’s gift was well intentioned, clocks are associated with death in traditional Chinese culture and, as a result, risked harming growing U.S.-Taiwan ties—although the Taiwanese were versed enough in U.S. influence to laugh the mistake off.

But paradiplomacy is also difficult for some states to understand—and they may read the wrong messages as a result. Namely, paradiplomacy is at odds with China’s unitary system of government. In China, provinces, autonomous regions, counties, and municipal-level governments cannot engage with subnational counterparts diplomatically without aligning with the policies and interests of the central government. As a result, Chinese subnational governments engage in “multilayered engagement,” which works to bolster the diplomatic and foreign-policy goals of the central regime. Multilayered engagement is formally carried out through the Foreign Affairs Offices of Provinces, Autonomous Regions, and Municipalities (FAO).

It is also bolstered by other provincial-level government organs like the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and quasi-government organs like the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship With Foreign Countries. The FAO is responsible for engaging in China’s wider foreign policy but from the local level up—including working with sister cities and other foreign country subnational divisions. Provincial-level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) branches often use the FAO to engage in multilayered diplomacy because party-to-party relations are carried out by the CCP’s International Liaison Department.

The distinctions between these systems means China has (and might again) misinterpret affronts from subnational U.S. bodies as stemming from the U.S. federal government. This occurred last April when Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued the Chinese government, the CCP, and other Chinese officials and institutions over their actions to suppress information, arrest whistleblowers, and deny the contagious nature of COVID-19. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, noted the immense negative human and economic impact COVID-19 had on the lives of Missourians and their state government. Neither the Chinese government, the CCP, nor the officials named in the lawsuit filed a formal response.

However, Chinese state-affiliated media did latch onto these accusations and projected their dismay to both the state government and federal actors. For example, Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the nationalist tabloid the Global Times, tweeted “to counteract the abuse of anti-China litigation over COVID-19, Beijing is already preparing to take the necessary punishment measures against some members of the U.S. Congress, the state of Missouri, and relevant individuals and entities, sources told Global Times.” The Global Times also referred to the lawsuit as “another U.S. perpetrated farce.”

Subnational legislation similarly falls risk to misinterpretation by China’s government. Another bill introduced this March in the Florida state legislature is HB 439 “Prohibited Governmental Transactions With Technology Companies and for Chinese Products,” which would prohibit Florida government entities from purchasing any goods that are either made in China or contain 25 percent or more parts produced in China starting Jan. 1, 2023.

Meanwhile, HB 1047 “Relations Between Postsecondary Institutions and Communist Regimes” and its companion legislation in the Florida Senate, SB 1110, seeks to deter malign influence through severing Florida colleges and universities’ ties with “foreign countries governed by a communist regime.” As such, HB 1047 would prohibit certain relations between those parties, such as cultural exchanges, agreements, and programs of study. It also initially included language that specifically singled out relations with China through a provision that sought to remove the Florida-China Linkage Institute from the list of authorized Florida linkage institutions. Interestingly, another Florida Senate Bill CS/SB 1606 “Victims of Communism” seeks to dent authoritarian influences by requiring high school students to learn how victims of communist regimes suffered from censorship, poverty, starvation, migration, and systemic violence.

Subnational legislation like these bills could limit the Biden administration’s options in their relations with China as these actions might embolden U.S. hawks within Chinese leadership, thereby creating obstacles for future cooperation or crisis management mechanisms between the two countries. Bills like HB 7017 may exacerbate fears in China that the bill is part of a wider plot the U.S. federal government is orchestrating against the country. Conversely, subnational legislation could confirm the worldview of some U.S. hawks that the United States and the rest of the West is trying to undermine China however they can. That Chinese and U.S. systems of diplomacy are incongruous with each other speaks volumes to their different values, but it also creates challenges in handling China’s projection of U.S. intentions.

The challenge posed by China and subnational enthusiasm around pertinent foreign-policy issues like countering China provides the Biden administration with the opportunity to establish the Office of State and Local Diplomacy (OSLD) within the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships. In March, the Truman Center proposed the establishment of the OSLD as a way for the State Department to partner with diverse stakeholders like governors and mayors across the country. Part of the OSLD’s mission would be to ensure local and state legislators are aware of national level policies and interests toward China and how legislators can work with the federal government to advance the national interest. The Truman Center also urged the Biden administration to expand the Pearson Fellowship dramatically by placing fellows initially only on Capitol Hill to state capitol buildings in all U.S. states and territories. Expanding the State Department’s presence beyond the National Capital Region can provide the federal government with other underused diplomatic tools in the United States’ relationship with China.

Subnational legislation and actions can place limits on the Biden administration by either spoiling relations and negotiations between the United States and China or by forcing the Biden administration to take a specific approach to China. Meanwhile, state and local jurisdictions feel excited and empowered to act on these issues while they lack the experience and knowledge to do so tactfully. Regardless, subnational entities will continue to seek action.

Rather than seeking to stifle their voices, the Biden administration should reach out to state-level legislatures to hear their China priorities. This can be easily done by ensuring the State Department has a presence in the United States’ state and territory capitol buildings to advise state, territory, tribal, and local officials on foreign-policy-related matters. If China’s rise is the United States’ greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century, the federal government can lessen that burden by enlisting the assistance of state and local governments across the country.

Bryce C. Barros is the China affairs analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United StatesAlliance for Securing Democracy and a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Truman National Security Project, Alliance for Securing Democracy, or the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Jennifer Gurev is a former resident junior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy.