WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The top US diplomat in China, Terry Branstad, is retiring, the American Embassy confirmed on Monday (Sept 14), after President Donald Trump touted the former Iowa governor’s expected campaign help in a key swing state.
The embassy’s statement resolved hours of uncertainty about Branstad’s status after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo thanked the envoy for his service in a series of tweets, without explicitly whether saying whether he was resigning.
Branstad was planning to depart Beijing early next month and return to Iowa, the embassy said.
Earlier on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular news briefing that the government hadn’t yet received any formal notification that Branstad was departing.
“Branstad’s departure would be a loss to China-US diplomacy as it would mean one less political heavyweight with a deep understanding of China based here,” said Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s cabinet and founder of the Center for China and Globalisation.
“My impression of Branstad from being at the same events is that he is someone who actively tried to ease China-US tensions. His departure would be a loss to furthering bilateral relations.”
Over the weekend, Trump had said Branstad would return to the US while praising the campaign efforts of the ambassador’s son, Eric Branstad.
“Eric’s father’s coming home from China because he wants to campaign,” Trump said, in a phone call with supporters of US Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican whose close re-election battle in Iowa could help determine control of the upper house.
Branstad, a former long-time Iowa governor, was chosen in part because of his familiarity with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited the Midwestern US state during a trip abroad in 1985.
China praised his appointment, hailing Branstad as an “old friend of the Chinese people”, a moniker reserved for a select few statesman credited with improving Beijing’s ties with the wider world.
Instead, Branstad has presided over the most contentious period since the two sides established diplomatic relations more than 40 years ago, including tit-for-tat consulate closures and restrictions on diplomats.
Last week, China’s foreign ministry accused Branstad of participating in an attempt to “trap” China by asking state media media to publish an opinion piece containing “lies and malicious smears.”
“Ambassador Branstad has contributed to rebalancing US-China relations so that it is results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair,” Pompeo said in a tweet.
“This will have lasting, positive effects on US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”
On Friday, China announced new restrictions on American diplomats operating in Hong Kong, as well as the mainland, in retaliation against recent curbs on China’s diplomatic activities in the US.
The State Department largely dismissed the measures, saying US diplomats in China have long worked under severe limitations and that most of the announced measures weren’t new.
“It’s very difficult for Branstad to make a difference under current differences,” said Tao Wenzhao, a senior researcher of American studies at the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“The Trump administration’s suppression of China is too great. Of course, we hope the channels of communication and interaction remain open even if Branstad leaves.”