Improving U.S.-China relations through “people-to-people contact” to reduce “the threat level” between the countries was the most significant part of Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s two-week Asia tour, he told Civil Beat in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

Carlisle said a moment of clarity came when he met with a top government official in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square who spoke frankly about a disconnect between China and the United States.

“We had somebody who was essentially at the highest level of the Chinese government,” Carlisle said. “They very bluntly said, ‘You know, look, our governments don’t always see eye to eye.’ And there are a bunch of people in China who don’t believe that they should have anything to do with the United States. And there’s a bunch of people in the United States who don’t believe there’s anything we should have to do with China.”

Finding common ground, Carlisle said, isn’t necessarily up to government officials. He said governments must also promote relationships between the citizens of both countries.

“I mean, I’m not just talking about government,” Carlisle said. “Certainly, (meetings between) municipal governments are good. Sister city relationships are good. We exchange culture. We exchange educational opportunities. We exchange those soft things that really mean a lot. We bring the hula, they bring the acrobats.”

Strengthening cross-cultural ties is also a way to open dialogue about more serious matters, Carlisle said.

“A view that’s very, very significant for us to take and follow up on is to make sure that we have people-to-people contact,” he said. “We still have the ability to communicate with those people who believe that if we have the Chinese people and the American people meeting each other, greeting each other, and becoming friends — which is very easy to do — the threat level between us goes down.”

During Carlisle’s two-week trip to China and Taiwan this month, he said he visited museums, attended a film festival and even had a 50-pound panda cub sit in his lap. But the official purpose of the trip, he said, was to strengthen “sister city” relations with the countries, as well as discuss tourism and other economic opportunities.

In Shanghai, the mayor said he promoted Honolulu as a prime location for filmmakers. He got new perspective on how rail could transform Honolulu from officials in charge of Taiwan’s high-speed train. The Asia trip came just weeks after Carlisle traveled to South Korea, and he said he’s now considering heading to Japan next.

“I’ve been to Korea, I’ve been to China and Taiwan,” Carlisle said. “In Japan, there is a sister city activity that I could go to, but it’s more that they need to have their friends show that they’re not afraid to go to Japan. It’s not definite but my thinking is that would be a good thing.”

While governments in South Korea, China and Taiwan paid for Carlisle and other city officials to visit in May and June, Carlisle said he wouldn’t accept such a gift for a trip to Japan.

“That I would do on our nut rather than imposing a financial burden on our friends who are already in trouble,” he said.

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