Xi Jinping's 'old friend' Terry Branstad wins broad approval as new US envoy to China

China Vice President Xi Jinping is welcomed by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad in the governor's office before the state dinner at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa on Feb 15, 2012.
China Vice President Xi Jinping is welcomed by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad in the governor's office before the state dinner at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa on Feb 15, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS
Terry Branstad, Governor of the State of Iowa, speaking to media following his meeting with US President-elect Trump at Trump Tower in New York.
Terry Branstad, Governor of the State of Iowa, speaking to media following his meeting with US President-elect Trump at Trump Tower in New York. PHOTO: EPA

Mr Terry Branstad, President-elect Donald Trump's pick as the next US ambassador to China, has known Chinese President Xi Jinping since 1985 and may help to ease trade tensions between the world's two biggest agricultural producers, diplomats and trade experts said.

The nomination "really sends a message that Donald Trump wants to handle China at the bilateral relationship level," said Professor Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.

The 70-year-old Iowa Governor first met Mr Xi when the latter came to Iowa as a provincial official on his first visit to the US in 1985.

Mr Xi would visited Iowa again 17 years later, when he was on the verge of becoming China's President. Mr Branstad, who was then in his second stint as Iowa governor, threw a dinner for the Chinese guest and toasted him as "a great friend of Iowa".

Mr Branstad's longtime relationship with Mr Xi and other Chinese leaders was cited by Mr Trump in a statement, alongside his qualifications including experience in government.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called Mr Branstad an "old friend" of China when asked in Beijing about the appointment on Wednesday (Dec 7), although he said China would work with any US ambassador.

"We welcome him to play a greater role in advancing the development of China-US relations," Mr Lu told a daily news briefing.

The nomination, which will be formally made once the Republican president-elect is sworn in on Jan 20, was well received, even among some Democrats.

"He's tenacious, and trust me, with the Chinese, you need to be tenacious," US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said of Mr Branstad.

Mr Branstad is the longest-serving US governor, with two non-consecutive terms that began in 1983 and 2011. Before that, he was elected to three terms in Iowa House of Representatives and later served as the state's lieutenant governor.

He has visited China at least six times, most recently in November as the leader of a trade mission that made stops in Beijing and Hebei.

China is now Iowa's second-largest export market, after Canada, according to the US-China Business Council. The state sold US$1.4 billion in crop products to the country in 2015.

Mr Branstad's appointment suggests that Mr Trump may be ready to take a less combative stance toward China than many expected, experts said.

Mr Trump had said when he takes office he intends to declare China a currency manipulator, meaning it keeps the yuan artificially low to make its exports cheap, and has threatened to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the United States. His unusual decision to accept a call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen last week has also added to tension with Beijing even before he is sworn in on Jan 20.

"It means that the Trump team understands that it is important to have an ambassador who has access to Xi Jinping," Dr Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said of Mr Branstad's appointment.

The governor, who has seven grandchildren, favour political and socially conservative policies and was an early supporter for Mr Trump's campaign for the White House.

Mr Trump had hinted at Mr Branstad's nomination even before the Nov 8 election. He said of the governor at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa: "I think there is no one that knows more about trade than him ... You would be our prime candidate to take care of China."

SOURCES: REUTERS, BBC, BLOOMBERG