The Chinese government has praised Donald Trump’s nomination of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad — described as an “old friend” — as the next U.S. ambassador to China, in a move seen as a conciliatory gesture after last week’s protocol-shattering phone call between the U.S. President-elect and the President of Taiwan.
China was left smarting when Donald Trump accepted a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday — the first direct contact between the leader of the U.S. and Taiwan, over which Beijing claims sovereignty, since diplomatic relations were severed between Washington and Taipei in 1979.
Chinese officials issued stern rebukes for the diplomatic faux pas, though were effusive about the appointment of Branstad, who has known Xi since 1985, when the Chinese leader visited Iowa as a young official heading a five-strong agricultural research delegation. It was Branstad’s first term as state governor at the time.
“Governor Branstad is an old friend of the Chinese people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a press briefing. “We welcome him to play a great role in promoting the development of China-U.S. relations.”
Branstad, who developed a friendship with Xi owing to a shared interest in farming, said he was “honored and humbled” to accept the position. The son of a farmer, he is known for his down-to-earth leadership during almost 21 years in public office. Branstad also received Xi with a gala dinner in Iowa’s state capital Des Moines in 2012 when Xi was Chinese Vice President.
“I have known President Xi Jinping for many years and consider him an old friend,” Branstad, 70, said in a statement. “I look forward to building on our long friendship to cultivate and strengthen the relationship between our two countries and to benefit our economy.”
The posting — which is subject to Senate confirmation — is one of the most prestigious, and challenging, in U.S. diplomatic relations, even more so now given Trump made campaign pledges to name China a currency manipulator and slap 45% tariffs of Chinese imports. Branstad was an early backer of Trump for the presidency and his son Eric ran Trump’s campaign in Iowa.
That Trump made the appointment so soon is also significant, indicting a desire to smooth relations and build business ties. By contrast, Barack Obama nominated Ambassador Jon Huntsman almost five months after his inauguration, and George W. Bush nominated Clark Randt three months after entering the Oval Office.
“Governor Branstad’s decades of experience in public service and long-time relationship with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders make him the ideal choice to serve as America’s ambassador to China,” Trump said in a statement.
Iowa exported $2.3 billion in goods and $273 million in services to China last year, according to the U.S.-China Business Council, making China the Hawkeye State’s second biggest export market after Canada.