In 2023, Germany prescribed itself with a China strategy for the first time. The strategy is set to turn Germany away from the outdated foreign policy principle ‘Wandel durch Handel’ and to introduce a strategic approach for its relationship with China. While the strategy itself is an important first step towards a more realistic foreign policy, it has a loophole: subnational diplomacy.

Our study reveals that the lack of a formal coordination mechanism hampers the consistent implementation of the federal China strategy. Berlin does not exert concrete influence on how and according to which criteria municipalities arrange their exchanges with Chinese partners. In reality, not even every state government has detailed knowledge about the partnerships of their municipalities. Local governments must be aware that in their cooperation with Chinese cities and communities, they are dealing with the extended arm of the Communist Party​.

Over the last 40 years, almost 120 city partnerships between Germany and China have been formed. Though each of the cooperation-agreements is unique, with a different focus-area and fluctuating activeness, the general blueprint for the Chinese side is to place itself at critical junctions of public and private life in Germany, by building networks of actors, favourable to itself. Germany appears to be poorly equipped to recognize these networks and deal with them adequately. Our report finds and argues that decades of subnational entanglement have made Germany vulnerable and exposed to China’s exploitative tactics.

The absence of a cohesive organisational structure among German municipalities, coupled with a relative scarcity of resources, renders the German approach less equipped to match the streamlined and unified efforts of their Chinese counterparts in town-twinning initiatives.”

“Enhancing the security framework for city and municipal partnerships is paramount to ensure alignment with national foreign policy objectives, to mitigate risks associated with China, and heighten awareness of China’s united front activities within Germany. We propose a comprehensive policy framework aimed at federal, city, and municipal authorities.”


At the core of the German China strategy stands ‘de-risking’, which describes the idea to reduce dependencies in critical areas and thereby guarantee autonomous decision-making. While on a national level, the mitigation tactic aims to prevent the exposure to further strategic vulnerabilities, the risks that exist on a subnational have been fundamentally misunderstood. Town-twinning has been and is still being sold as an apolitical tool that allows for genuine people-to-people connections across cultural boundaries, despite its traditionally economic focus. Town-twinning with China goes beyond that: By trading market-access to German companies and prestige to their respective home-cities for city-partnerships, China has gained a foothold in Germany, spanning political, economic and academic realms, among others. This has led to the creation of China-friendly networks that alter discourses and decision-making process in its favour, essentially undermining attempts to ‘de-risk’.

China’s approach is highly centralised and coordinated, with ample resources dedicated to implementing national strategies. Despite a plethora of different agents, entities and institutions, all are obligated by law to follow the approach dictated by the CCP. Following the doctrines “using the local to surround the centre” (以地方包圍中央) and “using civil actors to promote political ends” (以民促政), China aims to sway individuals and cultivate support at the subnational level, for them to pressurise national governments to adopt policies favourable to China.

Germany’s approach is shaped by its federal system. Municipalities have lots of autonomy when engaging in subnational diplomacy, and are only loosely and voluntarily organised through institutions such as the Städte- und Gemeindebund (DStGB), where they exchange knowledge and best-practices. Obligations regarding adherence to national diplomacy exist only in a negative form – all that does not explicitly go against the national foreign policy is permitted. Furthermore, many German municipalities are notoriously underfunded and often understaffed, leading to situations where very well equipped Chinese delegations face a single local-policymaker and overwhelm him.

Determined by the institutionally ascribed municipal autonomy, naturally approaches to subnational diplomacy differ significantly throughout Germany. In our report, we looked at the different ways in which Berlin and Cologne respectively handle their city-partnerships with Beijing. The case study’s findings suggest that municipal autonomy must not necessarily lead to irresponsible and autonomy-surrendering decisions, for as long as the actors carry sufficient China-knowledge and subscribe to an ethical approach.

This expertise does not get built overnight. Cologne has recognized the significance of subnational diplomacy and established an Office for International Affairs that holds frequent exchanges with stakeholders and civil society organisations, leading to structures that can not only recognize the threats emanating from China but also withstand exterior pressure. It has prescribed itself with a concept paper on the future handling of city partnerships, emphasising human rights and insisting on them being brought up.

Berlin on the other hand does not appear to be up to the challenge. Not only does the German capital lack a department specifically dedicated to its subnational diplomacy, it also does not have a specific agenda that it follows. There is no particular goal beyond further economic entanglement and fostering people-to-people exchanges, which as we have argued in the report, do merely serve as a facade for economic dealings. Berlin has not gotten woken up by the Verfassungsschutz report, and has yet to take a proactive approach to combat Chinese interference and transnational repression.

Federal level

To create coherence in the China strategy, the German approach to subnational diplomacy must be fundamentally rethought and municipalities must be adequately equipped. Drawing on legislative approaches in the United States and Australia, we recommend establishing a federal office for subnational diplomacy that supports, coordinates and regulates municipalities in their foreign engagements.

Equally important is establishing clear guidelines for municipalities that define the goals and objectives of engagement with China. These should include the enhancement of local authorities’ China competence, the promotion of universal values and human rights in their international engagements and transparency requirements.

Municipal level

Although many of the problems discussed in the report could be addressed and resolved on the national level, we are aware that introducing this kind of legislation tends to be a lengthy process. As the matter is urgent, we encourage municipalities to develop their own guidelines for international engagement, and to draw inspiration from Cologne’s concept paper. We further recommend to increase transparency, to engage with specialised civil society organisations and to consequently build China-competence.