By David Douglass
NCSL’s International Relations Task Force (IRTF) met in Honolulu last October, coinciding with the NCSL Executive Committee meeting.
Approximately 12 task force members took part in the gathering at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki. The IRTF agenda kicked off with brief welcoming remarks by one of the three IRTF co-chairs, Senator Curt Bramble (R-Utah).
This opening segued into the first module of the task force meeting, namely four presentations from serving legislators and legislative staff, describing the challenges and opportunities associated with hosting international parliamentarians and staff at state capitols.
Presenters included Representative Aaron Johanson (a five-term Hawaii Democrat and majority whip in the Hawaii Legislature), Chuck Gates (international relations coordinator in the Utah Legislature), Sheron Violini (deputy secretary of operations for the California Senate) and Joe Ayala (principal deputy with the California Office of Legislative Counsel).
Johanson shared with the group his personal experiences that helped shape his appreciation for international engagement and inform his work as a legislator. He lived abroad as a youngster, attending high school in Japan and university in China. He emphasized the value of active engagement with foreign delegations who arrive in Hawaii to discuss matters of shared importance tied to his committee work on labor, public employment, economic development and business.
In Utah, the work of international relations is closely tied to the state’s economic development efforts to attract and develop foreign businesses and trade as part of its overall economic development strategy.
Working in coordination with the legislature’s International Relations and Trade Committee, Gates described his efforts to help advance the state’s interests through memorable milestones such as the Spike 150 celebration honoring the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad (hosted at Golden Spike National Historical Park in May 2019) and the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference (hosted by Salt Lake City in August 2019).
Violini described the work of the California Senate’s Office of International Relations, established in 1987 to assist senators in furthering strong economic and diplomatic ties between California and the rest of the world. More than 6,000 visitors from over 100 countries have visited California since the office’s inception. The highest priority topics of interest include the state’s legislative process, its budget and finance methodology and achievements in specific fields like technology. The state also enjoys 28 official sister state relationships around the world as well as a bilateral scholar program with Japan.
Ayala, another Californian, described the efforts of his Office of Legislative Counsel to host international fellows under the U.S. State Department’s Professional Fellows Program. Since 2010, in collaboration with the nonprofit organization American Councils, his office has hosted individuals from Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam.
Since most fellows are attorneys, Ayala’s staff strives to expose them to jury trials, legislative meetings and other aspects of the legal system. This program also includes an outbound component, wherein Ayala’s team lectured student groups and conferred with high-ranking public officials in Armenia and Ukraine.
The participants heard an international perspective on this topic from Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. She was in Honolulu leading a five-person delegation on an NCSL study tour, as part of the memorandum of understanding between our two organizations.
NCSL has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Friendship Association since the mid-1990s, including scores of exchanges between our two countries.
Li remarked on this long-standing connection and the intrinsic benefits of shared dialogue between legislators and staff from China and the U.S. She reflected on how favorably her organization has worked with NCSL over the years, sending scores of U.S. delegates to Chinese cities and provinces.
The morning’s program then turned to the subject of the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific relations. The IRTF’s two other co-chairs, Mississippi Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden (R) and Kentucky Legislative Fiscal Analyst Chuck Truesdell, helped introduce the subject and our guest speakers to attendees.
The speakers hailed from the East-West Center, an esteemed educational and research organization based in Hawaii. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a multi-disciplinary resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern among the United States, Asia and the Pacific.
The center’s president, Richard Vuylsteke, provided a broad-based outlook on America’s regional relations. Leveraging his experience with the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and Taipei, Vuylsteke reflected on the region’s movement towards an economic and political inflection point. With respect to Hong Kong and Taiwan, institutional principles of openness and transparency are coming under greater scrutiny vis a vis China’s posture towards market openness, rule of law, and local governance.
Vuylsteke was followed by Denny Roy, senior fellow and Northeast Asia security specialist at EWC, who drilled down into observations about the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Policy, Asia-Pacific security issues and Chinese foreign policy.
David Douglass is a policy specialist in NCSL’s International Program.