‘Farm boy’ from Iowa tasked with bridging US-China divisions

AP PHOTO U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, second from right, walks with his wife Christine Branstad at right and other members of his family during a photocall and remarks to journalists at the Ambassador's residence in Beijing, China, Wednesday.

BEIJING — A self-described “farm boy from Iowa” who befriended China’s president three decades ago is tasked with smoothing relations between the world’s two largest economies amid increased unpredictability in American foreign diplomacy under President Donald Trump.

Terry Branstad, 70, a former six-term governor of Iowa, made his debut Wednesday as the new U.S. ambassador in Beijing. He’s known China’s president since Xi Jinping visited Iowa as a county-level Communist Party cadre on a 1985 trade trip.

The two struck up a lasting friendship that’s expected to be a major asset as Branstad seeks to ease strains over the U.S.-China trade imbalance, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

Less certain is how much influence Branstad will have with Trump.

The two first met during the 2016 election campaign. Their dynamic will be closely watched by China as it seeks to make sense of the new administration’s sometimes volatile shifts in policy, said professor Shi Yinhong with Beijing’s Renmin University.

“His task is going to be complicated,” Shi said. “The ambassador is a good choice, but he does not decide Sino-U.S. relations. Everything depends on Trump and his policy toward China.”

In a video greeting to the Chinese public, Branstad said he will focus on resolving the trade imbalance and neutralizing the North Korea threat. Both areas have proven fertile ground for disagreement between Washington and Beijing, North Korea’s biggest trade partner and source of diplomatic and economic assistance.

U.S. lawmakers have long complained Beijing’s protectionism disadvantages foreign companies and helps drive America’s multi-billion dollar trade deficit with China.

On North Korea, China strongly opposed U.S. sponsorship of a missile defense system in South Korea in part because it has a radar system that Beijing said could be used for spying on China’s military.

Trump has said he hoped China could use its influence with North Korea to convince Pyongyang to cease its nuclear and missiles tests. However, this week he tweeted that Xi and China’s efforts to help with North Korea have “not worked out.”

Trump has also seemed to toy with dropping Washington’s decades-old commitment not to recognize Taiwan by accepting a congratulatory phone call from the island’s president. However, shortly afterward he reaffirmed the “One China” policy that recognizes only Beijing.

Against that background and amid Trump’s “bombastic and erratic statements about China,” Branstad’s appointment gives Beijing some assurance that the U.S. remains interested in stability, said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Immediately upon his arrival, Branstad was forced to confront another area of disagreement between the two nations — China’s human rights record.

Controversy over the authoritarian nation’s treatment of dissidents resurfaced this week with news that imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo had been hospitalized and diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. Branstad said Liu should have the chance to seek medical treatment outside China if it could help.

How hard he pushes Beijing on the matter remains to be seen, but he’s already signaled a willingness to confront Xi.

During a May confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Branstad expressed disappointment on the slow pace of political reforms in China since he first visited in 1984. He told lawmakers that the problem has continued under Xi and that he would be willing to challenge his “old friend” on the issue.

“He has not done what I’d hoped would happen, and that is become more open and more willing to accept freedom of press and stop the repression of minorities,” Branstad testified. “He’s got to recognize that some of the things that are being done in China today are very much against what I think (are) the right policies for a world leader.”