Why Branstad is such a smart choice as ambassador to China

Iowa governor Terry Branstad has a longstanding relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping. (Getty Images)

There are a lot of reasons to doubt US president-elect Donald Trump’s incoming national security and foreign affairs team.

But his choice of Iowa governor Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China isn’t among them.

Branstad, it’s true, doesn’t speak Mandarin like former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, rumored to be under consideration for Trump’s State department. Nor is he an American of Chinese descent like former Washington governor Gary Locke. Both Huntsman and Locke served as ambassadors to China in the Obama administration.

Branstad has been elected to six terms as Iowa’s governor (for the first time in 1982 and most recently in 2014), and he has increasingly seen the effects of closer trade with China from the vantage point of a state that, after California, produces more agricultural output than anywhere else in the United States.

More importantly, however, Branstad has something of a personal relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平). Branstad was serving as governor when Xi made a two-week trip as part of a Chinese delegation to rural Muscatine in Iowa. Since that time, Branstad has visited China many times, most recently at a trade delegation in 2011, and Branstad hosted a dinner for Xi in 2012 when China’s paramount leader returned to Iowa. 

It’s clear that there’s a real and pre-existing relationship between Branstad and Xi, and Chinese officials are already welcoming Branstad’s nomination:

“Branstad is an old friend of China and [we] welcome him to play a bigger role in China-US exchanges,” said Lu Kang, the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In any event, it is certainly a much shrewder choice than a former Montana senator with no discernible background in Sino-American relations (the current ambassador, Max Baucus).

Just days after Trump and his team flouted diplomatic norms by accepting a telephone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, Branstad’s appointment may be a sign that an incoming Trump administration will not consist solely of nationalist bluster.  That’s good news — especially considering that damage that could result from a mutually devastating trade war with China or growing (and needless) military tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan. The Trump-Tsai call is particularly touchy because Tsai comes from the nominally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (民主進步黨). Only the second time that the DPP has ruled Taiwan, Tsai swept to power after a massive backlash against growing trade links with Beijing, including a key cross-straits trade agreement that Taiwan’s previous government abandoned after massive protests from the Sunflower Student Movement.

Branstad will come to the role as China’s ruling Communist Party (中国共产党) prepares for its 2017 national congress, which takes place every five years, and which could remake the various levels of party governance, including the most powerful of all, the Politburo Standing Committee. With just seven members, up to five of them could be replaced — and Xi may decide to add up to two more.


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