By Evan Halper
Donald Trump has picked Terry Branstad, the long-serving Iowa governor who proved a loyal and unflinching surrogate in the presidential race, to be the ambassador to China, the transition team said Wednesday.
The choice of Branstad is likely to reassure Beijing, which has been rattled by Trump's rhetoric about China and his breaking decades of protocol with his outreach to Taiwan. The Iowa governor has deep ties to China and a personal friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller said Branstad is "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 election."
The Chinese government reacted favorably to the pick. "Mr. Branstad is an old friend of the Chinese people, and we welcome his greater contribution to the development of China-U.S. relations," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, during a press briefing in China.
The choice signals to China that Trump is not looking to escalate tensions, despite an antagonistic tone toward the country that has endured beyond the campaign and into his transition. Trump warns of slapping massive tariffs onto Chinese imports if trade terms are not renegotiated to be more favorable to the United States and he accuses the country of manipulating its currency. Trump further alarmed Beijing when he accepted a congratulatory phone call last Friday from Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of Taiwan, an island nation China regards as a renegade province.
After a campaign in which China was often the target of Trump's ire, the choice of Branstad is the first big move Trump has made to tone down the friction.
Branstad was one of the more visible establishment Republican leaders on the campaign trail with Trump. His son, Eric, ran Trump's general election campaign in Iowa. When a videotape surfaced in October in which Trump boasted of his uninvited sexual advances, Branstad did not join other Republicans in distancing himself from the campaign. He said he accepted Trump's apology and warned Iowans that only Trump could protect the country from Islamic extremists. Branstad is on his sixth term as governor of Iowa. He is the longest-serving governor in American history.
The China post could prove to be Branstad's toughest assignment yet. Trump has repeatedly vowed that he would drive a hard bargain with China, a position that is popular with the displaced factory workers who fueled Trump's victory but risks touching off a trade war that could prove damaging to the American economy.
Branstad's relationship with Xi stretches back to 1985, when the now-Chinese president visited the United States while working as an agricultural officer. In 2012, Branstad hosted a dinner in Iowa that Xi attended while serving as the Chinese vice president.
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