Washington has sent 12 ambassadors to Beijing since restoring full diplomatic relations in 1979. Among them, three were born in pre-revolutionary China (Arthur Hummel, James Lilley and J Stapleton Roy), several could speak fluent Chinese (most notably, Jon Huntsman) and one was ethnic Chinese (Gary Locke).
But never before has the US sent an ambassador that can claim to know the presidents of both countries personally. What is more, both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump refer to Terry Branstad as a friend.
Branstad, who served as Governor of Iowa for 22 years, was confirmed as the new US Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China last week. His arrival date in Beijing has not been announced.
So how did a farmer’s son from the Hawkeye state get to know the leaders of the world’s two largest economies?
It is not easy to earn “old friend” status in China’s political rhetoric (see WiC103) but Branstad’s relationship with Xi indeed goes back a long way.
According to Beijing Business Today, it dates back to 1983 when Branstad, then 36, began his first term as governor (he was the youngest governor in the US at the time). He twinned his state with the north Chinese province of Hebei, where he paid a visit with his wife in 1984 and received enthusiastic hospitality. A year later Branstad invited a delegation of Hebei officials on a 12-day tour to Iowa.
Leading the Chinese group was a young Xi Jinping, then only 31 and a county-level Party boss. The name card he handed out on the trip said he was head of the “Hebei Shijiazhuang Food Association”.
He met Branstad, visited pig, corn and cattle farms and was billeted in the home of a local family in the Mississippi River town of Muscatine for two nights – where he slept in a bedroom adorned with Star Wars wallpaper.
More encounters were to come. Iowa’s relationship with Hebei and China flourished when Branstad visited Beijing as part of a trade mission in 2011. Xi – then vice president – had a 45-minute meeting with him in the Great Hall of the People.
The following year Xi returned to Iowa during a US tour as the Chinese leader-in-waiting. He again referred to Branstad – then serving his third term as Iowa governor – as an “old friend” and thanked his former hosts for their hospitality.
“You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with. My impression of the country came from you,” Xi said.
Branstad’s relationship with Donald Trump is a lot more recent – it dates back to early 2016 when he came out in support of the businessman’s nomination for Republican presidential candidate despite the Manhattan mogul’s persistent China-bashing. A few months later it was announced that Branstad’s eldest son Eric would head up Trump’s presidential campaign in Iowa.
Two days before the election last November Trump told a rally inIowa, that “nobody knows more about trade than him [Branstad]”. He added (Trumpesquely): “He’s one of the ones in dealing with China where you would be our prime candidate to take care of China.”
Now Branstad has been confirmed, the Chinese media are getting excited about the arrival of “an old friend of China”.
“It is widely believed that he being the ambassador to China will help promote Sino-US friendly cooperation,” the Xinmin Evening News said.
The Global Times also noted that many observers expect Branstad to become “an excellent salesman for American agriculture products”.
China’s great hope with Branstad is that he will focus on trade ties, as he did during his long tenure as Iowa governor – and that he’ll encourage a more positive tone. In a delicate time for relations between the two countries this ambassador is perhaps uniquely placed to act as a trusted conduit between both heads of state.
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