On December 7, President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team confirmed that current Iowa Governor Terry Branstad would be nominated for U.S. Ambassador to China. Governor Branstad has strong ties to China, in particular with President Xi Jinping who’s first trip to the United States was to Iowa when he was an agricultural official from Hebei Province. Governor Branstad has previously called President Xi an “old friend” and hosted President Xi when he returned to Iowa in 2012. He recently lead a trade mission to China in November.
Governor Branstad is the longest serving Governor in United States history as he is currently serving his sixth term as Iowa’s Governor, as part of his second stint in the position. His first turn as Governor took place from 1983-1999, he was then elected again in 2011. Interestingly, although Governor Branstad was a long-time supporter of President-elect Trump—and his son managed the general election campaign in Iowa—he was also a vocal proponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which President-elect Trump has repeatedly said he will kill within days of taking office.
Experts have noted that it is important that the U.S. Ambassador to China have the President’s ear and an ability to get him on the phone when needed, and given the Governor’s strong history with Trump, this could be key. Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London (and who spoke with AmCham members earlier this year) told the Washington Post: “There’s definitely going to be problems in the first few months, so you need someone who’s going to get direct access to the president and get the president’s attention.” He added, “I get the feeling he’s not going to want piles and piles of briefings. He’s not going to wade through that. In a sense, that makes the personal system, where you can have people speak to him directly, very important.”
During one of its regular news conferences, China’s Foreign Ministry reacted positively to the news of Governor Branstad’s nomination. Spokesman Lu Kang said, “First of all, I would like to say that Mr. Branstad is an old friend of the Chinese people and we welcome him to play a greater role in promoting Sino-U.S. relations. The U.S. Ambassador to China serves as an important bridge linking the governments of the U.S. and China. We are willing to work with whomever takes this position to strive for the continued, sound and steady development of bilateral ties.”
Iowa has strong economic ties to China. According to the U.S.-China Business Council, Iowa exported some $2.3 billion in goods to China in 2015, making it the second largest export market for Iowa behind only Canada. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of this export came in agriculture with $1.4 billion of the exports being crop production. In terms of services, Iowa exported $273 million worth, making it the number three destination behind Canada and the United Kingdom. . Iowa has been a huge investment market for Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI), with the Rhodium Group noting that Iowa has received over $1 billion in Chinese investment, generally due to the Chinese acquisition of Smithfield Foods.
Given the Governor’s long history with China, some reports and analyses believe his nomination could go a long way to smoothing tensions with Beijing following Trump’s strong rhetoric against China throughout the campaign and the recent phone call conversation he had with Taiwan’s leadership. The phone call conversation, the first by a sitting U.S. president since the normalization of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, ruffled a number of feathers in China and amongst the U.S. foreign policy community. Current Agriculture Secretary, and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack told Yahoo News, “He’s tenacious, and trust me, with the Chinese, you need to be tenacious.”