Branstad to leave ‘tough job’ as ambassador; allies praise him for calm, ag-friendly diplomacy

By: - September 14, 2020 1:20 pm

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad and his wife, Chris, pose outside the ambassador’s residence in Beijing, China. (Photo courtesy of Terry Branstad)

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad served as a calming force during a particularly rocky period in U.S.-China relations, helping to lead to a resurgence in the communist nation’s purchases of American crops, his Iowa allies said Monday.

News spread early Monday Iowa time that Branstad, 73, Iowa’s longest-serving governor, will step down as ambassador in October. He was one of President Trump’s first diplomatic appointments. Trump heralded Branstad’s long relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

Branstad’s long-time associates in Iowa said he is expected back in Iowa by the first week of October. Branstad has homes in Johnston and at Lake Panorama, and most of his family already has left China. His daughter, Allison Costa, still teaches expats in Beijing.  

Kirk Leeds is CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Soybean Association)

Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association, said Branstad was a welcome, farm-friendly force. He praised Branstad for a relatively long service as ambassador in a high-turnover world of international diplomacy.

“That is a tough job,” Leeds said in an interview. “He has hung in there in a tough situation.”

Leeds had previously noted that China was not keeping up with its commitments under a preliminary agreement between the two countries in January.

Branstad:  Negotiations have made ‘too little progress’

Branstad recently was in the middle of a scuffle with the People’s Daily in China, which on Sept. 7 declined to run an op-ed he submitted to the publication. The newspaper accused Branstad of asking the staff to print U.S. propaganda while criticizing the Chinese media as “propaganda machines.” Branstad’s op-ed was “illogical, overbearing and unreasonable,” the Daily wrote in a letter rejecting the piece piece as “full of loopholes and seriously inconsistent with facts.” The staff said it would consider publishing the op-ed if Branstad made “substantive revisions based on facts.”

The Daily accused the United States of discriminating against Chinese journalists in the U.S. “out of Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice.” One example was a three-month visa limit for Chinese media “including those permanently based at the United Nations headquarters.

In Branstad’s op-ed, entitled “Resetting the Relationship Based on Reciprocity,” he said negotiations between the two nations had made “too little progress.”

Branstad wrote that China must be “willing to address our concerns about the imbalance in the relationship and allowing our two peoples to build relationships through unrestricted engagement and uncensored discussion.” He added that U.S. journalists, companies and nongovernment organizations had had “unequal access” to China.

In a statement, Branstad said he informed Trump last week that he would be resigning in early October. “We are rebalancing the U.S.-China relationship so that it is fair and reciprocal and can fuel positive growth in both countries,” Branstad said of his tenure.

On Sept. 11, Chinese officials announced new, unspecified, restrictions on U.S. diplomats in reaction to U.S. tightening of rules governing Chinese diplomats’ actions in the U.S.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that Branstad had helped form relations that were “results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair.”

Work remains.

Concerns remain about future of U.S.-China trade

Soybean association exec Leeds said there are concerns about the future of trade with China as the nations continue without a new trade agreement. But Leeds said China has started to buy more U.S. soybeans as Brazil struggles to meet demand, and added a record U.S. corn purchase to the mix. 

“He’s made a difference,” Leeds said of Branstad. ‘He’s done a great job and has been a great voice for Iowa agriculture. 

Leeds said the Phase One agreement between Trump and Xi in January helped, as did market forces that have made plentiful U.S. commodities relatively cheap. Commodity prices have risen recently after China’s most recent purchases.

“We’re selling lots of soybeans again,” Leeds said. “I am more encouraged with the movement of corn and soybeans. Some of that is Phase One and some is the market. (China’s) pork industry is coming back, and Brazil can’t provide more soybeans, so they are buying ours.” 

Leeds, fearing China wouldn’t hold up its end of the deal, had pursued deals with much smaller emerging markets in Bangladesh and Pakistan in recent months.

Branstad’s tenure caps long career

Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross, who was one of Branstad’s chiefs of staff in the governor’s office, said Branstad lasted longer than most ambassadors do anywhere in the world. He worked in a delicate situation as Trump and his top negotiators were playing hardball with the world’s most-populous nation. 

“Given the tumultuous relationship we have with China, having Terry Branstad there was an asset,” Gross said. “He did more than his time.” 

Longtime GOP activist and consultant David Oman, another former Branstad chief of staff in the governor’s office, said Branstad’s tour of duty in Beijing was a hallmark of a career that included serving as a state representative, lieutenant governor, and in two stints as governor. Branstad became the nation’s longest-serving governor.

“He spent three-plus years as our nation’s ambassador to the largest country in the world,” Oman said. “That is a career the likes of which is hard to equal.”

U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad (Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department)

Then, at age 70, he was off to China as Trump moved to keep his campaign promise of forging a trade deal with China that was a better financial deal for U.S. interests and would address long-time accusations of the Chinese stealing intellectual property. What ensued was a trade war with tit-for-tat tariffs that is still raging

While Branstad was a key figure in the talks, the heavy hitting came from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Oman said Branstad, who enjoyed strong respect in China as a friend of Xi, traveled heavily around the country before COVID-19 restricted his movements. He had said he wanted to attempt a “full Grassley,” which in Iowa means visiting every county but in China means a full round of visits to the provinces. He made it to 26 of 34 provinces, the State Department reported.

In a statement, Grassley said he is eager to welcome the Branstads back to Iowa. He did not say if he will invite the former governor on Grassley’s next all-Iowa tour.

“Ambassador Branstad leveraged remarkable leadership and his Iowa work ethic on behalf of the American people to help level the playing field with China,” Grassley said. “Deploying Midwestern diplomacy that bears respect and takes no nonsense, his work on the international stage has been outstanding, just like his work on behalf of the people of Iowa when he was governor.

“Over the past few years, amid rising tensions and trade conflicts, it’s been reassuring to have an advocate for American agriculture bring his experience and expertise to the table and represent America’s interests with the world’s second-largest economy,” Grassley added.

Branstad met Xi in 1985 when Xi was a lower-ranking official visiting Iowa to explore agriculture, U.S.-style.They kept in contact in trade missions and other visits. 

Xi referred to Branstad as an “old friend.” 

Branstad’s replacement is unlikely to be named until after the election, Oman said. 

It is unclear what Branstad’s next move will be, but Oman mentioned much of what happened in China most likely will end up in the ambassador’s memoir.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.