The selection of a politician who goes way back with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the new United States ambassador to China has been welcomed by Beijing, easing concerns over Sino-US ties under incoming US President Donald Trump.
Long-time Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, 70, had first met Mr Xi in 1985 when the latter visited the midwestern state as a young official, and has kept up contact with Mr Xi.
The choice of Mr Branstad was greeted warmly by Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang saying yesterday that China is "happy" to see an "old friend" take up the job of promoting the development of Sino-US ties.
This contrasts with Beijing's protest days earlier over a phone call between Mr Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen - the first known contact between a US president or president-elect and Taiwan president since the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in the late 1970s.
Mr Branstad's decades of friendship with Mr Xi was highlighted by China's official Xinhua news agency in a detailed profile, complete with photos of their recent meetings in Iowa and Beijing in 2012.
CHOICE 'MAY NOT MEAN MUCH'
This (appointment) could be viewed as a good thing but it may not be very significant for almost all the recent indications from Trump are all rather negative for now.
SINO-US EXPERT SHI YINHONG from Renmin University.
PERSONAL TIES 'A STRONG POINT'
It's a good pick because he (Branstad) knows President Xi... It creates a personal relationship that is very hard to replicate.
MR ROBERT HORMATS, a former under-secretary of state in the Obama administration and who is now with the New York-based consultancy firm Kissinger Associates.
The Global Times, a tabloid linked to the Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial yesterday that "China should give a positive response" if Mr Branstad is appointed as this "suggests there may be another dimension to Trump's desire to maintain communications and friendliness with China".
Mr Branstad, the longest-serving US governor who served non-consecutive terms starting from 1983 and 2011, has made at least six visits to China, said media reports. He most recently led a trade delegation to Beijing and Hebei - the sister state of Iowa - last month.
Although the Republican governor did not have any diplomatic experience, Mr Trump pointed to his long-standing ties with Mr Xi and other Chinese leaders, calling it "ideal". Mr Branstad also has strong ties with Mr Trump - being an early supporter of his presidential campaign and playing a part in helping the Republican camp capture Iowa, a key swing state.
Even as the pick of Mr Branstad was lauded by the nationalistic Global Times, it also argued that "China needs to always prepare for the worst" and called for a significant increase in military spending to build more nuclear weapons in response to Mr Trump.
State-run China Daily also noted in an editorial yesterday that "China has to prepare for the worst" as "Sino-US relations are facing uncertainty as never before".
"Trump's words are not necessarily more bark than bite," it added.
Given the uncertainty, the incoming ambassador, who will be formally nominated once Mr Trump is sworn in on Jan 20, will not have it easy, said analysts.
"His biggest challenge could well be his own president," said Sino-US expert Shi Yinhong of Renmin University. "Whether or not the ambassador can play an active role depends squarely on the policy direction set by Washington. So far, we're unable to predict what Trump will do after he enters the White House," Professor Shi told The Straits Times.
Nonetheless, analysts and observers in the US are optimistic that Mr Branstad's long-standing ties with Mr Xi and Chinese leaders could bring benefits.
"It's a good pick because he (Branstad) knows President Xi, he can represent the heartland of the US, which I think is very positive, and the fact that President Xi has been in his state twice is a very positive thing," said Mr Robert Hormats, a former under-secretary of state in the Obama administration. "It creates a personal relationship that is very hard to replicate," said Mr Hormats, who is now with the New York-based consultancy firm Kissinger Associates.
- Additional reporting from Nirmal Ghosh