Why Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is Trump's pick for ambassador to China

Donald Trump has selected Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China. Governor Branstad's ties to China – and Chinese president Xi Jinping – go back decades.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Governor of Iowa Terry Branstad arrives to meet with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York City on Tuesday.

After a rocky start, can Donald Trump’s pick for ambassador to China put the two countries on the path to cooperation?

President-elect Trump has tapped Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as ambassador to China, Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller confirmed in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. Governor Branstad, the longest-serving governor in US history, has assiduously cultivated business linkages between Iowa and the world’s most populous country. He also has personal ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In an increasingly tense international climate, China experts say that recognizing the mutual benefits of the US-China relationship is key for both powers. Branstad, who has experienced these benefits as a state official, will be tasked with beginning to bridge the divide between the United States and China.

"Gov. Branstad ... is someone who has considerable public-policy experience but also someone who has a lot of experience and great grasp of trade issues, agriculture issues, [along with] a tremendous understanding of China and Chinese people," Mr. Miller, the Trump spokesman, told reporters, The Des Moines Register reports.

It’s important to get the relationship between the two powers right, Asia watchers say. Ian Bremmer, the founder and president of Eurasia Group, a global political-risk consulting company, called it "the most important bilateral relationship in the world" on CBS' "This Morning."

That’s true not just for the US, but for China, too.

“The tremendous flow of people, goods and services across the Pacific Ocean every day already make the relationship indispensable to both countries,” wrote Xie Tao, professor and associate dean at the School of English and International Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, in an article for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy several days before the US presidential election.

The relationship has been plagued by politics: US politicians tend to blame China for job losses, while Beijing has often seen the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” as an effort to limit Chinese influence in the region. 

Some analysts were concerned that Mr. Trump had jeopardized the relationship before his administration began, after his phone call with Taiwan’s leader broke decades of US commitment to "One China." Trump has also repeatedly attacked China for its trade practices, labeling the country a currency manipulator, and recently criticized China’s moves in the South China Sea.

But Branstad, a long-time Trump supporter with ties to China, may be able to smooth tensions and forge consensus between the two countries. He is, as former aide Tim Albrecht told The Des Moines Register, a known quantity in China, thanks to his frequent business trips there. Since returning to office in 2011, he has made four visits to China, and President Xi also visited Iowa on an invitation from Branstad. 

Branstad has known Xi since 1985. At the time, Branstad was serving his first term as governor, while Xi – then a provincial official – was studying American agricultural techniques, including corn and hog farming in Iowa.

"There’s not just a respect there, there’s a kinship that’s hard to describe," Mr. Albrecht explained.

Lu Kang, the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described Branstad as "an old friend," adding that China would "welcome him [playing] a bigger role in China-US exchanges," Bloomberg reports.

Branstad has had an up-close view of the benefits that working with China can bring. China is his home state’s second-largest export market, trailing only Canada, according to Bloomberg. In 2015, the state exported $2.3 billion in goods to China, including agricultural machinery, corn, and chemicals. Iowa also earned $273 million last year by sending its services to China, according to the US-China Business Council.

Trump’s unpredictability makes it hard to know where he will go on China policy, Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told The Christian Science Monitor shortly after the election. But the appointment of Branstad as ambassador to China possibly supports his idea that business may ultimately win out

Trump first suggested the appointment during a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, on Nov. 6, calling Branstad a “prime candidate to take care of China.” The appointment must be confirmed by the US Senate after Trump is sworn in as president on Jan. 20.

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