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CvT: US-China Relations to Suffer as Ambassador to China Steps Down

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The United States’ Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, announced his resignation on September 14 to officially end his three-year post in the position. Branstad, who previously served six terms as the Governor of Iowa, was a crucial early supporter of President Trump. Following the 2016 election, Branstad was quickly appointed and began his role in May 2017. After announcing his resignation, Branstad is scheduled to leave Beijing in early October 2020. 

Branstad’s influence in China

Branstad was one of President Trump’s first ambassador nominees, and was favored for his experience with Chinese relations and trade as well as his personal relationship with China’s President, Xi Jinping. Branstad, who has maintained friendly relations with President Xi following a 1985 visit to Iowa, was declared by Beijing as “an old friend of the Chinese people.” 

Upon departure, Branstad cited his involvement in the US-China phase one trade deal as his proudest achievement, and the US embassy applauded his efforts to reduce the trade of fentanyl into the US. Other notable achievements include being the first ambassador to visit Tibet since 2015, visiting 26 provinces, and opening the Chinese market back up to US beef exports. Despite his successes, Branstand’s position came with many difficulties that he struggled to overcome.

Ambassadorial difficulties

Although Branstad started his role as the US Ambassador to China on good terms, some speculate that his move to step down was related to an opinion piece that he wanted to publish in China, which may have conveyed a culmination of unresolved frustrations that the US is experiencing with China. Faced with a range of tough issues, spanning topics from the South China Sea to the US-China trade war, as well as a confrontational administration, Branstad was not able to make as much of an impact as some had initially hoped.

Though the position of US Ambassador to China has always been an influential one, Branstad played a significantly more subdued role compared to his predecessors. Throughout his appointment, Branstad had several goals he aimed to accomplish as ambassador, such as working with China to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, expanding trade between China and the US, and easing Chinese tariffs on US farmers. 

Although Branstad’s objectives were all within his power, it was often US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who played a more decisive role in driving US-China relations. For example, Mike Pompeo took the lead regarding the North Korea nuclear deal, US-China trade war, and Hong Kong relations. Although there were some accomplishments made during Branstad’s three-year post, he was ultimately unable to leverage his relationship with President Xi, which is reflected in the current state of US-China relations. 

Apart from Pompeo, Trump also often challenged the ambassador’s progress. The President’s lack of strategic alignment with Branstad made for unpredictable messaging, making policy and negotiations on more sensitive topics harder. All in all, the friendly foundations that Branstad started off with were not enough leverage to use in achieving his aspirations while acting as the ambassador. The nature of the tasks, challenges brought on by the administration, and general trajectory of US-China relations were too much for one man to control.

What’s next?

Terry Branstad has yet to release an official statement for his resignation, but due to his relationship with President Trump, many assume he will join the 2020 campaign trail. Sources familiar with the campaign have stated Branstad is wanted for his popularity in Iowa and the surrounding Midwestern ‘battleground’ states. Additionally, given Branstad’s support for the administration and experience with China, he will likely make an influential addition to the campaign trail and give credibility to President Trump’s hardline stance against China. 

Unfortunately, Branstad’s resignation brings additional complications to the already strained diplomatic relations. Given the timing of his resignation, right before the upcoming 2020 election, it is likely that the critical position of US ambassador to China will remain unfilled for months – regardless of the outcome of the presidential election. There are concerns that this prolonged lapse where the US ambassador position remains unfulfilled will further halt communications between the two countries, and will drive yet another wedge between the US and China.

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