Community Advancement through Subnational Relations

Interviewed by: Lida Lee

Ben Leffel- The Tai Initiative's Director of Research

Ben Leffel- The Tai Initiative’s Director of Research

One year ago, when The Tai Initiative held its first conference in Seattle, no one could have expected the tremendous growth that was to come over the next year.

Yet over the past year, the Tai Initiative’s Director of Research, Benjamin Leffel, has been hard at work bringing together an impressive collection of renowned speakers who bring practical advice and knowledgeable assistance to the community of subnational leadership in U.S.- China relations. He has been busy discovering and coordinating with many of our speakers, structuring the panel and workshop themes, pursuing the business and educational communities and otherwise putting a lot of content “meat” on the bones of the Denver conference.

He is an expert in Sino-U.S. subnational commercial and intergovernmental relations, has been a research consultant for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) China Center since 2010, holds an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service, and has produced many studies on American city and state-level engagement and interaction with China relating to exports, investment, technology, cross-cultural, people-to-people, city-to-city, and cross-sectoral cooperative exchange issues.

To help our readers and supporters get to know this incredible addition to the TI team, we sat down with him to learn more about his passion and dedication with the Tai Initiative.


Q: Tell me about your interest in U.S.-China subnational relationships.  How did you come to be interested/involved in this field?

A: I found subnational relationships as the answer to the question: Where, within Sino-US relations, does the most potential for innovation and contribution to communities exist? Following this was a senior thesis involving contact with about 60 U.S. and 30 Chinese cities about their inter-relationships, which led to a large body of continued research, my work in China with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) China Center, and my work with Tai Initiative as Director of Research.

Q: What is subnational diplomacy?

A: Subnational diplomacy is the act of entities ‘below’ the federal or national level of government engaging in relations with counterparts abroad for specific goals to collectively benefit their community and others. Specifically, entities in the public, private and/or social sector at this level conducting physical or electronic exchanges and communications with foreign counterparts to achieve economic, political/intergovernmental, educational, social or other goals. Trade, knowledge exchange and capacity building interests that are the ‘hard’ outcomes [of] such relationships; the ‘soft’ outcomes being the mutual trust and understanding built between counterparts at the local level contributing, on the whole, to amity between nations. It is the latter that subnational diplomacy is more derivative of.

Q: Why is it important? How will it be beneficial? 

A:  In a few words: Community advancement. U.S. towns, cities, counties, and states have found different forms of subnational engagement to be able to provide the opportunities, supply the demands and solve the problems which communities small and large face daily. Communities stand to gain social, intellectual and monetary capital through subnational engagement. For example, exchanges between domestic and foreign educational institutions can expand the intellectual capital of both sides through exchange of and access to exclusive knowledge; intergovernmental and business exchanges can expand monetary capital and create wealth and jobs through business networking and signing of MOUs with local governments; and nonprofit exchanges can expand social capital, with more local-level organizations and individuals being in contact and greater cooperative opportunities emerging therein.

Q: What is your dream/vision for the future of U.S.-China relationships on a subnational level?

A: As I approach the start of my Ph.D. program, this question is extremely important as part of my research agenda. My ‘vision’ per se is that within the U.S., advanced practices and innovations made over time in subnational engagement with Chinese counterparts will allow communities of different sizes to relatively easily engage in and extract immediate benefit from subnational engagement with Chinese counterparts across sectors. I want to see currently existing US-China associations, programs based in government, universities, and otherwise to cooperate more deeply at the local and regional level in the US so that benefits of subnational relationships with Chinese counterparts can be afforded to a wider range of communities, and a wider range of members within communities.