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World & Nation

Iowa governor, who has long ties to Beijing, is selected as Trump’s ambassador to China

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad at Trump Tower in New York City on Dec. 6.
(AFP / Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday picked Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the next ambassador to China, tapping a Republican with long ties to Beijing less than a week after Trump’s controversial phone conversation with the president of Taiwan. 

The Republican governor was chosen because he was Iowa’s “longest-serving governor” who had a “tremendous understanding of China and the Chinese people,” said Jason Miller, a spokesman for Trump’s transition team. 

“It is clear that Gov. Branstad will represent our country well on the world stage,” Miller said. 

The signals that Trump has sent in the last few days over future China policy have been decidedly mixed. 

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The naming of Branstad, 70, an early and fierce loyalist to Trump, indicated interest in keeping good relations with China. Branstad has had ties to Beijing through numerous agricultural trade deals, and he has known Chinese President Xi Jinping for years. 

Not a week earlier, however, Trump raised concerns when he became the first U.S. president or president-elect in a generation believed to have spoken directly with a Taiwanese president.

The move was a reversal of decades of the “one China” policy, whereby the United States recognizes only one Chinese government, that of the mainland. It angered Beijing, which views the self-governing island as a breakaway province, even though Trump tried to portray the call as merely a congratulatory chat.

Although many in the foreign policy establishment regarded the call Friday with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen as a major diplomatic faux pas that reflected significant gaps in Trump’s understanding of world affairs, it now seems clear that the decision was deliberate. Former Sen. Bob Dole, the only former Republican presidential nominee to endorse Trump and now a lobbyist in Washington, says he helped broker the contact with Taiwan in a bid to improve ties with the island.

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Dole is a registered lobbyist working on behalf of Taiwan, according to disclosure documents filed with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

According to the filings, Dole helped include language favorable to Taiwan in the GOP presidential platform and arranged numerous contacts between Taiwanese officials and Trump’s staff members and advisors. Over the last six months, he also worked with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, which serves Taiwan in lieu of an embassy because of the lack of diplomatic ties.

For the work, Dole or his firm, Alston & Bird, was paid $140,000, according to the documentation.

Also in the last week, Trump revived threats of huge tariffs that some experts say would probably trigger a trade war with China, America’s largest commercial partner.

If his intention was to thumb his nose at Beijing, Trump succeeded. He won praise in some quarters for the unorthodox approach, especially among supporters in his base who want the United States to have a less friendly relationship with powers such as China and who are more isolationist.

John R. Bolton, the former United Nations ambassador under President George W. Bush, is one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisors and is on the shortlist to be named Trump’s secretary of State.

Writing in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this year, Bolton chastised a “weak” President Obama who he said has allowed China to get away with broad territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. China has seized disputed territory and built military installations.

Bolton advocated that a new administration “play the Taiwan card.”

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“For a new U.S. president willing to act boldly, there are opportunities to halt and then reverse China’s seemingly inexorable march toward” dominating East Asia, he wrote.

But then came Wednesday’s appointment of Branstad, which would suggest a less combative posture in dealing with Beijing. 

In 1985, Branstad, during his first stint as Iowa governor, met with a mid-level Chinese bureaucrat on an agricultural trade mission who spoke little English and had barely traveled outside China.

The next time that Chinese official visited Iowa was 2012, and he was about to become China’s president and general secretary of its Communist Party. Xi hadn’t forgotten the warm reception he received during the two-week trip 27 years earlier. 

That early encounter between the governor and the future leader of China paved the way for Branstad’s appointment as the U.S. ambassador to China. 

“Xi Jinping was so touched by the kindness and warmth of the people of Iowa and the way he was treated by the governor when he was just a low-ranking Communist Party official,” said Tim Albrecht, a former aide to the governor. “This is a positive thing, naming a diplomat who is so beloved in China.’’

Branstad holds the unofficial position of what the Chinese call lao pengyou, or old friend. Since the 1980s, he has met four times with Xi — during trade missions to China in 2011 and 2013, during Xi’s visit to Iowa and most recently in September last year when Xi was visiting Seattle.

Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Chinese are fond of this idea of “old friend of China.”

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“There is a possibility that President-elect Trump undoes some of the harm that has been done over the past week or so, in terms of the phone call with Tsai Ing-wen and the negative tweets about China, by appointing somebody who has for years had nothing but positive things to say about China,” she said.

Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, said there is value in Branstad’s relationship with Xi that predates his ascendancy as China’s leader.

“I think it is a pretty sage and stabilizing decision,” Schell said.

Although an ambassador rarely sets policy, Schell said, Branstad will have access to Xi as well as access to Trump, having been an early supporter. “He will have good bona fides on both sides of the ledger.’’

Other foreign policy experts cautioned that jettisoning the finely balanced arrangement governing relations with China and Taiwan could be perilous.

China, with Russia, potentially poses the greatest threat to the United States and must be handled carefully and strategically, said Robert Kagan, a board member at the Foreign Policy Initiative and well-known conservative who did not support Trump.

“The unmistakable hegemonic ambitions of China and Russia threaten the stability and security of the world’s two most important regions, East Asia and Europe … [which] are vital to the United States economically and strategically,” Kagan said Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“For China that means dominance of East Asia, with nations like Japan, South Korea and the nations of Southeast Asia both acknowledging Chinese hegemony and acting in conformity with China’s strategic, economic and political preferences,”  he said.

Times staff writers Wilkinson reported from Washington and Demick from New York. 

 

 

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