The Trumpstad Report: China

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Trump hair: Lorie Shaull/Noun Project, mustache: Aldric Rodríguez Iborra/Noun Project

Part of a series on the ties that bind Iowa’s governor and the president.

Shortly after his Jan. 20 inauguration, Donald Trump signed paperwork to officially nominate Gov. Terry Branstad as his ambassador to China — a perplexing choice to some when the news was first reported in early December, but not to those familiar with the governor’s relationship with now-Chinese President Xi Jinping that dates back to the mid-’80s when Branstad was serving his first term as governor and Xi directed a feed cooperative in China’s Hebei Province. In 1985, Xi visited Muscatine on a trip to learn more about US farming techniques.

When Branstad returned to the governor’s mansion in 2011 after a 12-year hiatus, he soon departed on his first of several trade missions to Asia — Iowa exports to China are a lucrative trade, particularly for the agriculture sector, which sold $1.4 billion in products to the nation in 2015 — where he reconnected with Xi, who was now China’s vice president.

In 2012, Xi visited Muscatine once again as his country struck a $4.3 billion deal to buy soybeans from the state. “You can’t even imagine what a deep impression I had from my visit 27 years ago to Muscatine, because you were the first group of Americans that I came in contact with,” Xi told his hosts in the town of 23,000 people. “My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America.” Xi returned home with an idea to build a “model farm” in northern China similar to one he visited in the Hawkeye State.

Now-China President Xi Jinping and Terry Branstad, center, pose for a photo during Xi's trip to Iowa in 1985. Photo: Office of the Governor of Iowa
Now-China President Xi Jinping and Terry Branstad, center, pose for a photo during Xi’s trip to Iowa in 1985. Photo: Office of the Governor of Iowa

Branstad’s nomination was welcome news in China, where a spokesman for the Communist-led nation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called him “an old friend of the Chinese people.” But the unpredictable Trump has been a different story. “As ambassador, Mr. Branstad would find himself in the middle of an increasingly fraught relationship,” the New York Times explained Dec. 7. “Mr. Trump campaigned against China, repeatedly describing Chinese imports to the United States as a form of theft. He has proposed a steep tariff on those imports and promised to seek vigorous enforcement of trade rules, such as restrictions on state support for private companies.”

With concerns about an impending trade war looming, Trump continued to take jabs at China as president-elect. On Jan. 2, he criticized it for not doing more to squelch North Korea’s nuclear ambitions:

The tweet was met with a strong response by a Chinese government spokesman, who rejected Trump’s claim, and Xinhua, the Chinese government’s official press agency, which published a commentary the next day with the headline, “An obsession with ‘Twitter foreign policy’ is undesirable.” “Everyone recognizes the common sense that foreign policy isn’t child’s play, and even less is it like doing business deals,” the article read. “Twitter shouldn’t become an instrument of foreign policy.”

The cold relationship between Trump and China has shown little sign of warming since. Yesterday, the Times ran an article headlined “Trump Injects High Risk Into Relations With China,” detailing the president’s decision to pull out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership the Obama administration entered in hopes of bolstering America’s economic influence in the region relative to China’s. Trump’s willingness to quickly abandon his predecessor’s negotiations with allies there, the article reported, has Chinese officials concerned about what else Trump might do — such as escalate tensions over disputed territory in the South China Sea or cozy up with Taiwan.

Branstad, whose son Eric served as the state campaign director for Trump, was an unabashed supporter of the GOP nominee throughout last year’s presidential general election, lending support to the candidate’s rallying cry to imprison rival Hillary Clinton even as prominent Republicans outside the state began to abandon Trump over his seemingly endless series of escalating controversies.

Back then, few predicted that Trump would actually win the election. But Branstad’s gambit has paid off, at least for now, assuming his nomination is confirmed by the Senate, and perhaps until Trump starts an international crisis via Twitter in which the governor becomes enmeshed.

Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes did not respond to requests for comment about Branstad’s thoughts on Trump’s tweets about China or the potentially fraught role the governor expects to play as ambassador under a Trump administration.

The governor is expected to step down as Iowa’s chief executive later this year, after his confirmation as ambassador. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has already amassed over $1 million for a possible 2018 gubernatorial bid, would then serve out the remainder of Branstad’s term.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.