Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a longtime friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping, is the frontrunner for the crucial post of U.S. ambassador to China.
A decision may follow meetings between Branstad and members of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team in New York in the coming week, said three people with knowledge of the matter.
The potential move to name Branstad comes at a time of heightened tensions with China after Trump abandoned almost four decades of diplomatic protocol on Friday by speaking directly with the leader of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province. Trump hasn’t named his choice for secretary of state, the top U.S. diplomatic post.
The longest-serving governor in U.S. history, Branstad will be in New York next week for previously scheduled work related to Iowan economic development, his spokesman said. Meetings with Trump transition officials are likely to be added to his schedule, according to advisers to both Trump and Branstad. Trump will be in Iowa on Dec. 8 for a stop on his post-election victory tour.
A Republican, Branstad started a second run as governor in 2011. He previously held the job from 1983 to 1999. The decision for Branstad, 70, is complicated by his passion for serving as governor in Iowa and family pressures.
“I am not ruling anything out,” Branstad said on Nov. 19 at an annual fundraiser, the Des Moines Register reported. “But you know my focus has always been here on Iowa and I want to serve the people of Iowa.”
Branstad’s amicable history with Xi may be one of the reasons Trump is eyeing him for the ambassador post. Two days before the Nov. 8 presidential election, during a rally in Sioux City, Trump singled out Branstad as an ideal liaison to China. “You would be our prime candidate to take care of China,” Trump said in calling the governor to the stage.
Branstad and Xi met when China’s leader made his first trip to Iowa in 1985 during a sister-state exchange. At the time Xi was a young agricultural official from Hebei province, working as director of the Feed Association of Shijiazhuang Prefecture.
The two men have reconnected several times since then. Despite their cultural differences, the pair forged strong bonds and have used their mutual love of agriculture to bridge the gap between their respective countries on human rights, economic issues and other tensions.
Big Iowa Win
Branstad in 2012 feted Xi, then China’s vice president, with an elaborate dinner at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines, and days after Trump’s election embarked on a previously planned, week-long trade mission to China and Japan, his fourth trip to China in the last seven years.
The Branstads, unlike some establishment Republicans in other states, were enthusiastic backers of Trump even during some of the most difficult spells during the campaign. The governor’s older son, Eric, served as state director for Trump’s campaign.
Iowa favored Trump by almost 10 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, after twice voting for President Barack Obama. Trump carried Iowa by the largest margin for a Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1980.
China is Iowa’s second-largest export market, behind Canada. Figures from the U.S.-China Business Council show Iowa exported $2.3 billion in goods and $273 million in services to China in 2015. Crop production accounted for some $1.4 billion of the exports. Agricultural machinery, chemicals and other products were also sold.
If named as the U.S. envoy, Branstad would find his years of warm discussions about selling Iowa corn and soybeans to China shift quickly to more complicated matters as Trump and his Chinese counterparts play their hands. Among the main challenges facing the new ambassador will the Trump’s potential trade policy, including a vow to name China as a currency manipulator; state-sponsored computer hacking; and tensions surrounding China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
If Branstad were to step down, it would trigger a domino effect in the state that would include Iowa getting its first female governor with the ascension of Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, 59, Branstad’s desired political heir.