US envoy pick says he will push China on North Korea

President Donald Trump's nominee to be the US ambassador to China says that China can do more to push North Korea to curb its nuclear programme.VIDEO: REUTERS
Branstad (above) said he would not hold back from pressuring China on human rights or its maritime territorial ambitions.
Branstad (above) said he would not hold back from pressuring China on human rights or its maritime territorial ambitions.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Donald Trump's nominee for ambassador to Beijing said on Tuesday (May 2) he would urge his friend, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, to honour a commitment to rein in North Korea.

Terry Branstad, governor of Iowa, appeared before the Senate foreign affairs committee to seek confirmation as Washington's next envoy to its biggest rival and trading partner.

The state of Iowa exports around US$1.4 billion (S$2 billion) in farm products like soya and pork to China and Branstad has known Xi since he visited the United States as an agricultural official in 1985.

But he told senators that, while he hopes to build on the relationship, he would not hold back from pressuring China on human rights or Beijing's maritime territorial ambitions.

And he said it would be vital for China to properly enforce United Nations sanctions on North Korea in order to dissuade Kim Jong-Un's isolated regime from building more nuclear weapons.

"They have not abided by these United Nations resolutions and I think what's happening right now with North Korea is an example of why that needs to change," Branstad warned.

"I also think that they recognise... that this nuclear obsession that the leadership of North Korea has, with the guided missiles and everything, is a serious threat to humankind.

"And we need to all look at ways that we can work together. I hope that with my long-time relationship with the leader of China I can convey to him that we sincerely want to work with them."

Branstad was cautious when asked whether Washington might seek to punish Beijing if it again allows North Korea to by-pass international sanctions.

But he admitted "there may well be" a role for action against Chinese banks that work with the Pyongyang regime, which is testing missiles that might one day be capable of hitting US cities.

During last year's presidential campaign, Trump was a strident critic of China, accusing it of manipulating its currency to boost its exports at US expense.

And just ahead of his inauguration, Trump threatened to plunge bilateral relations into crisis by suggesting that he might review US support for the "One China" policy.

But once in office, Trump distanced himself from both positions and last month he had warm words for Xi after the great power leaders met at his Florida golf resort.

Branstad told the senators China had kept its currency artificially low in the past but no longer does so, and he vowed to push Beijing to open its market to more US exports.

His testimony was well-received by both Republican and Democratic senators and his confirmation as ambassador by the full Senate is now expected to be a formality.