Trump Picks Iowa Governor Branstad As US Ambassador To China, Beijing Calls Him "Old Friend"

As reported in Frontrunning, President-elect Donald Trump will nominate Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as the next U.S. ambassador to China, choosing a longstanding friend of Beijing after rattling the world's second-largest economy by speaking to Taiwan's president. Earlier in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called Branstad an "old friend" of China when asked about a report on the appointment, although he added Beijing would work with any U.S. ambassador.

The appointment of Branstad will likely ease trade tensions between the two countries, the world's two biggest agricultural producers, diplomats and trade experts said according to Reuters. It also suggests that Trump may be ready to take a less combative stance towards China than many expected, the experts said.

"We welcome him to play a greater role in advancing the development of China-U.S. relations," he told a daily news briefing. Branstad has likewise called Chinese President Xi Jinping a "longtime friend" when Xi visited Iowa in February 2012, only nine months before he became the Chinese leader.

Xi visited Iowa in 1985 on an agricultural research trip when he led a delegation from Hebei Province. He returned 27 years later and reunited with some of the people he had met.

Why an Iowa governor?

For one, China is one of Iowa's biggest export markets, so Branstad is well-placed to deal with China-U.S. trade issues, said Professor Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. "This really sends a message that Donald Trump wants to handle China at the bilateral relationship level," he said.

Branstad's personal ties with Xi could also help to ease U.S. access to Beijing's leadership, the diplomats and trade experts said, although they warned that his many years running Iowa, the top U.S. state for production of corn, soybeans and pigs, may not have prepared him for the more delicate tasks of diplomacy with Beijing. During Xi's 2012 trip, Chinese soybean buyers announced they would buy more than $4 billion in U.S. soybeans that year.

Since then, the United States has grown more reliant on China's voracious appetite for commodities to spur demand for everything from oil to corn as global oversupply has hurt prices. Volumes of U.S. agricultural exports to China hit record levels in 2015. "It's natural that they should continue this good relationship with China," said Pan Chenjun, senior analyst at Rabobank in China.

Still, Branstad will have his plate full trying to smooth over long-running tensions with China, which has seen its share of trades spats with the US in recent years. Specific U.S. trade concerns include allegations that China is dumping steel and aluminum in global markets below the cost of production, hurting American producers. In the agricultural sector, the U.S. has been unable to get Beijing to lift anti-dumping measures on U.S. broiler chicken products and an animal feed ingredient known as distillers' dried grains (DDGS).