Republicans on Capitol Hill are sounding the alarm that China is using "sister cities" to spy on the U.S. and gain influence, introducing legislation to examine the partnerships.
On Thursday, Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Roger Marshall of Kansas and Marco Rubio of Florida are introducing the Sister City Transparency Act, which would allow the U.S. to conduct a GAO report of U.S. sister cities with China partnerships. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, is introducing a companion bill in the House.
A "sister city" is a partnership between two communities in two different countries formed after officials from the two nations make a formal agreement; the U.S. has 1,800 "sister city" partnerships with 138 countries, and 157 partnerships in China, according to the latest numbers from 2019.
The 157 partnerships in China are the third most, behind Mexico's 168 and Japan's 162. That includes Little Rock, Ark., a sister city with Changchun, China; Dubuque, Iowa, a sister city with Handan, China; and Washington, D.C., a sister city with Beijing.
"The [Chinese Communist Party] hides behind the veil of soft diplomacy and mutual benefit until its foreign partners exhibit political nonconformity," Blackburn's office told FOX Business, adding that sister cities are "similar to Confucius Institutes," or partnerships between the CCP and U.S. public education institutions, that "may leave American communities vulnerable to foreign espionage and ideological coercion."
The Tennesee senator believes there is a lack of transparency about and engagement with these partnerships and "their agreements, activities, and employees."
Blackburn and Rubio initially introduced the bill in November.
The legislation would identify "oversight practices that U.S. communities implement to mitigate the risks of foreign espionage and economic coercion within sister city partnerships"; assess how "foreign communities could use sister city partnerships to conduct malign activities"; and review best practices for sister city partnerships to "ensure transparency," Blackburn's office said.
"Sister cities are strategic partnerships that Beijing brokers to create a foothold in American communities,"Blackburn said in a statement. "These partnerships are yet another tool in Beijing's campaign to infiltrate our culture to achieve their economic ends."
"Even though these relationships seem harmless, they have become the bread and butter for the [CCP]'s infiltration into U.S. culture, and they are using these — and have admitted that they are using these — as part of their Belt and Road initiative," Blackburn told Fox News in February.
China's Belt and Road Initiative sometimes referred to as China's "new Silk Road," is a massive infrastructure project under construction that would directly connect China to the Middle East into Europe. Some critics see the project as a threatening expansion of Chinese power, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Shanghai in January terminated its sister city partnership with Prague after Prague's mayor refused to commit to the CCP's nationalist "One China" policy, which aims to recognize Taiwan as China.
In the U.S., Blackburn expressed concerns with broadband equipment from Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which she described as "spyware." The government is working on removing embedded in U.S. infrastructure after the Federal Communications Commission designated the company as a national security threat.
"We know what China is up to," Blackburn said in February. "This all ends up being an invasion of privacy of the American citizen."
FOX Business' Hillary Vaughn contributed to this report.