This story is part of GlobalAtlanta’s exclusive China special issue, which looks at Georgia companies doing business in China, potential Chinese investment in the state, educational exchange and more. Click here to read more.

After exchanging pleasantries and business cards, the leaders sat opposite each other at an oversized conference table. Through amiable grins and attentive translators, they made their standard sales pitches.

Wu Hemin, vice mayor of Ningbo, China, touted his city’s strong port, easy access to Shanghai and a solid manufacturing base focused on exports. He was working on a partnership with Atlanta, so he knew about Georgia, he said.

A delegation from Savannah, Hinesville and Brunswick, led by the mayors of the coastal Georgia cities, talked about their proximity to the fastest-growing port in the United States (Savannah) and their prime location for distribution facilities, with plenty of land next to the ports and a network of interstates.

The meeting took place on the sidelines of the Central China Expo 2010 in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, where the Georgia cities two years ago firmed up sister-city ties with three Chinese counterparts.

In addition to the standard pledges of openness and cooperation, Brunswick Mayor Bryan Thompson described a less tangible advantage his city could offer.

“The difference with us is that we stay with you. We help you. We assist you. We won’t go away,” said Mr. Thompson.

The statement reflects the cities’ move to refine their recruitment model in China. They have built rapport through two years of exchanges, and they now hope to identify Chinese investors and to create a real mechanism for helping them enter the U.S. market.

After the Ningbo meeting, a group including Mr. Thompson, Dave Erickson, president of Haven Manufacturing, Brunswick City Commissioner Mark Spaulding and a few others tried to determine what that should look like.

Shane Keng, an Atlanta-based importer whose wife, Lily Yang, used family connections to help orchestrate the city relationships in Jiangxi, told the group that the community that offers the most structured assistance for Chinese investors would be successful in winning them.

Zhu Jincheng, deputy director of Jiangxi’s investment promotion agency, echoed that thought during an interview with GlobalAtlanta.

Jiangxi companies have been investing abroad, but since they don’t understand the culture and the business climate in the U.S., they’ve picked smaller, less developed economies in Africa and Southeast Asia, where China carries more influence, Mr. Zhu said.

“Sometimes the Chinese companies, they want to make investments in other countries, but they don’t know how to do that. They don’t know where they should make investments,” he said. “So they both need to do work by themselves, but they also need help from the local government.”

Many Georgia communities face this dilemma when dealing with China. As the country’s economy grows, experts say Chinese companies will move abroad to diversify their holdings, especially through acquiring brands and building factories in the U.S.

Still, Chinese investors, even some already sitting on piles of cash at home, are inexperienced in cross-border transactions and hesitant to set up shop in a market as competitive and complex as the U.S.

Economic developers traveling to China often note that it’s critical to build relationships there before these investors reach their point of decision. The question for Georgia communities is whether their government leaders – whose presence is appreciated in China business deals – can spend the time and effort to keep the relationships burning long enough for the companies to jump.

The coastal Georgia delegation has already taken a rare approach by working as a consortium in partnering with the Jiangxi cities and traveling together on business missions. The idea is to promote their region as a whole even as they work individually with their respective cities.

“We think that if we represent ourselves as a group, as an entire body, we will be better off,” said Mayor James Thomas of Hinesville, who led a nine-person delegation from his city on the recent trip.

That idea was somewhat validated when the mayors got the rare chance to meet with Jiangxi Gov. Wu Xinxiong. Mr. Wu’s province has a population of more than 40 million, about double that of Australia. The combined population of the three Georgia cities is less than 300,000.

“Being able to have an audience at that high of a level in a province with so many people … it really underscores the importance and the value that he places on these relationships that are developing in other parts of the world and certainly developing along the coast of Georgia,” Mr. Thompson told GlobalAtlanta.

Now, it’s a matter of turning those relationships into business.

Thanks to Ms. Yang, the delegation had a variety of business meetings during their expo visit. Hinesville met with Hans Power Technology Co. Ltd. Mr. Thomas and Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson led a group to see the factory of Lattice Power, a manufacturer of energy-efficient LED light bulbs and street lamps.

The whole group had a dinner with six Jiangxi companies on their last night in Nanchang.

Each city also had its own meetings outside the capital city. Hospital representatives from Brunswick’s Southeast Georgia Health System have been advising counterparts in their sister city, Ganzhou, on the construction of a new 1,500-bed hospital.

On this trip, Timothy Jamieson, a radiation oncologist from Brunswick, introduced a technology called CyberKnife, which treats previously inoperable tumors with targeted doses of radiation in a non-surgical procedure. Should the new hospital become the seventh in China equipped with a CyberKnife, Dr. Jamieson would help leaders learn how to use it.

The Brunswick group also met with a prolific children’s author in Beijing, who is exploring the possibility of using animation firm Cartoon Pizza as his U.S. distributor. The company is based in New York but will soon move to Brunswick, Mr. Thompson said.

Other Georgia-China municipal partnerships are springing up.

The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce this year opened an office in Wuxi, China, just west of Shanghai. DeKalb County recently formalized a sister-community arrangement with a district of Ningbo, China. Sandy Springs has a “friendship-city” relationship with Taicang, another city near Shanghai.

Atlanta has been a sister city with Taipei, Taiwan, since 1973. Columbus and Macon also have Taiwanese sister cities.

There is no mainland Chinese partner among Atlanta’s 18 sister cities. In 2007, three cities vied for the right to pair up with Atlanta. Ningbo emerged with the recommendation of the Atlanta City Council, but it was never voted on.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has said he would launch a new international affairs department in January, but he told GlobalAtlanta recently that he would focus on revitalizing existing sister-city relationships before launching new ones.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...