Donald Trump’s nominee for US Ambassador to China has vowed that he will not let his longtime “friendship” with Chinese President Xi Jinping stop him from fighting for the interests of the American people.
At a US Senate hearing yesterday, Terry Branstad, the current governor of Iowa, promised to take to a firm line with Beijing on issues like North Korea, trade disputes and human rights. Of course, the confirmation hearing focused mainly on the escalating situation in North Korea and what China could do about it. Branstad said that he would use his personal connections with Xi and his decades of experience with China to encourage Beijing to do more to prevent a nuclear crisis from developing in the region.
“There’s other things they can do diplomatically and economically to send a clear signal that they, as well as the United States and other countries in the world, do not tolerate this expansion of nuclear technology and missiles,” Branstad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When pressed on what exactly those “other things” might be, Branstad was vague, mentioning the possibility of imposing sanctions on Chinese banks or other entities that were violating UN Security Council resolutions by doing business with Pyongyang.
The 70-year-old governor also took a hard line on issue of China’s aggressive island-building in the South China Sea, stating that: “China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight.”
Branstad appeared eager to dispel any notion that he would take it easy on his old “pal,” the Chinese president. Their relationship started when, as part of a sister-state exchange in 1985, he welcomed a young agricultural official by the name of Xi Jinping to Iowa to interact with local officials and live out on the farm.
Apparently, Branstad was able to develop something of a connection with this former director of the Feed Association of Shijiazhuang Prefecture who was destined for bigger things. When Xi returned to Iowa on a state visit in 2012 as China’s vice president, Branstad treated him to an elaborate state dinner in the state capital of Des Moines.
While it may seem hard to believe that the two could foster a “friendship” — considering the government taboos, cultural differences and language barriers dividing them — Bloomberg reported last year that the pair have “used their mutual love of agriculture to bridge the gap between their respective countries on human rights, economic issues and other tensions.”
At his confirmation hearing, Branstad vowed that this shared love of crops would not cause him to back down from challenging Xi on behalf of the United States. “The fact that the leader of China calls us an old friend, doesn’t mean that I’m going to be at all reluctant or bashful of bringing up issues … be it human rights or intellectual property rights,” he promised.
During the presidential campaign, Branstad was a steadfast supporter of Trump, even as the candidate was mired in scandal. Last December, news leaked that Trump had offered Branstad the ambassador post. So far, he has been one of the few ambassadors that have been nominated by the new US president in his first 100 days in office.
Certainly, Branstad’s job seems a bit easier than it did last year with Trump dramatically softening his stance towards China since taking office. While during the campaign, Trump continually bashed China on a wide-range of issues, in the last few months he has since spent more time lavishing praise on his new BFF Xi Jinping.
Hopefully, the fact that Xi reportedly considers Branstad an “old friend,” will not foster any feelings of jealousy on Trump’s part. It’s assumed that Branstad will have no trouble being confirmed and could take up his post as early as the end of this month.