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Pick for US ambassador to China wins praise

By Chen Weihua in Washington | | Updated: 2016-12-08 09:48

US President-elect Donald Trump's pick of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to be the next US ambassador to China has been well received in both countries.

Trump announced his intent to nominate Branstad for the job, according to a statement on Wednesday afternoon from Trump's transition team.

"Governor Branstad's decades of experience in public service and long-time relationship with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders make him the ideal choice to serve as America's Ambassador to China," Trump said in the press release.

"He successfully developed close trade ties with China while serving as chief executive of the Hawkeye State. That experience will serve him well as he represents America's interests and further develops a mutually beneficial relationship with Chinese leadership."

The possible pick had been circulating for weeks, but Jason Miller, spokesman for Trump's transition team, confirmed it on Wednesday morning. He described Branstad as "someone who has a lot of experience and a great grasp of trade issues, agriculture issues, a tremendous understanding of China and Chinese people, and is someone who very much impressed the president-elect not just in their meetings on the campaign trail but also in meetings after the election".

"After long discussions with my family, I am honored and humbled to accept President-elect Trump's nomination to represent our great country as Ambassador to China," Branstad was quoted in the press release.

"I have known President Xi Jinping for many years and consider him an old friend. I look forward to building on our long friendship to cultivate and strengthen the relationship between our two countries and to benefit our economy."

The announcement was made just days after Trump's controversial phone call with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on Dec 2, drawing much criticism both in China and the US for its break with decades of bilateral diplomatic protocol between China and the US since they established diplomatic ties in 1979.

The Chinese government reacted favorably to the choice. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, when asked about news reports about the possible nomination, said on Wednesday that "Mr Branstad is an old friend of the Chinese people, and we welcome his greater contribution to the development of China-US relations."

Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institution, said such a soon pick of US ambassador to China reflects the high attention Trump pays to China.

"By picking his own people to the position, Trump wants to lead the China-US relations according to his own thinking," Li said.

President Barack Obama nominated Jon Huntsman to be the ambassador to China on May 16, 2009, nearly five months after his inauguration, while Clark Randt was nominated by President George W. Bush on April 30, 2001, three months after Bush took office.

Li also pointed to Branstad's close relationship with Xi, established in 1985 when Xi visited Iowa as a county leader in China's Hebei province during his first trip to the US.

"It's a clear sign for Trump to establish good interaction with Xi, so it's very positive in this regard. He not only pays attention to China, but also Xi himself," Li said.

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies and director of the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said most people did not notice that at the last campaign rally in Iowa with Branstad as host on the eve of the election, Trump publicly commented that Branstad would make a great ambassador to China.

"So this is a political payoff for delivering Iowa big time. But it is also a recognition of Branstad's considerable investment of time and interest in China, including with a junior official named Xi Jinping," Paal said.

"While this is not related to the Tsai phone call, it ought to help balance it out. Trump gets a loyal friend in Beijing. Beijing gets an ambassador with clout in the White House," Paal said.

Branstad, who is in his sixth term as Iowa governor and the longest-serving governor in US history, supported Trump during the presidential race. His son, Eric, ran Trump's general election campaign in Iowa.

In an interview with China Daily in September 2015 before Xi's state visit to the US, Branstad fondly recalled his time with Xi. When Branstad received Xi's five-person group in 1985 in the Iowa State Capitol, he was serving his first term as governor.

It was at Branstad's invitation that Xi made a return trip to Iowa in 2012 as China's vice-president. "We're very honored and very proud to have the president of China call us old friends," Branstad told China Daily in the interview.

Branstad has led several trade missions to China over the years. China is a key trade partner for Iowa, a major agricultural state and producer of soybeans, corn and pork.

Branstad, who turned 70 on Nov 17, said in the interview that he understands there are differences that need to be worked out by the two countries.

"But nevertheless, I have an old friend whom I trust and respect, and I want to build on that long-standing relationship of friendship and trust."

He said that there are going to be ups and downs in the China-US relationship. He urged people to "take the long view, and recognize the importance of building personal relationships, which can break down a lot of barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding that sometimes occur between our countries."

Li, of Brookings, believes the importance of the role of ambassador is declining compared with 30 or 50 years ago due to the growing interactions between the two governments and the many mechanisms of communication established between government departments.

But he said it also depends on an individual president, citing the fact that Randt, the longest-serving US ambassador to China and a former schoolmate of Bush's at Yale University, could contact the president directly. "So we cannot overlook the role of an ambassador," Li said.

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