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Trump to nominate Iowa's Branstad as Ambassador to China

Branstad has reportedly accepted the offer.

by Jennifer Jacobs

President-elect Donald Trump will nominate Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a longtime friend of Chinese President  Xi Jinping, for Ambassador to China, the U.S.’s most important trade partner and its largest economic rival.

Jason Miller, a spokesman for Trump’s presidential transition operation, confirmed the selection in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. Branstad, a Republican, has accepted the offer, three people close to the matter said on condition of anonymity.

President-elect Donald Trump will nominate Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a longtime friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping, for Ambassador to China. (Photo: Gil Design/Thinkstock)

The decision comes at a time of heightened tensions with China after Trump abandoned almost four decades of diplomatic protocol on Dec. 2 by speaking directly with the leader of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province. Trump has been critical of China’s currency policies and military build-up. He hasn’t named his choice for secretary of state, the top U.S. diplomatic post.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang called Branstad an “old friend” of that nation’s people.

“We’d welcome him to play a bigger role in advancing China-U.S. relations,” the spokesman said at a regular briefing Wednesday. “No matter who takes this position, we’re willing to work together to push the Sino-U.S. relationship to consistent, healthy and steady development.”

The American Soybean Association endorsed the selection.

"ASA enthusiastically supports Gov. Branstad as the next U.S. Ambassador to China," said ASA president Richard Wilkins in a media statement. "As we have said in the weeks that followed the presidential election, it is extremely important to have voices within the incoming administration that understand and value the huge impact that global trade has on U.S. agriculture and specifically American soybean producers. Nowhere is that relationship more significant than in China, a market that demands nearly 60% of our soy exports, and over 25% of our production overall."

"(Gov. Branstad) clearly understands the global nature of the agricultural economy, and knows what American farmers and Chinese buyers mean to one another," Wilkins said.

Trump Tower Visit

Branstad arrived at Trump Tower in New York Tuesday afternoon with his wife, Chris, and his chief of staff, Michael Bousselot. A contingent of Trump’s top advisers gathered for the meeting with Branstad, including Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon, Donald Trump Jr. and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, according to two people familiar with the matter.

An hour after Branstad went up the elevator to Trump’s office, he re-emerged in the lobby, where he told reporters he wouldn’t comment on whether he was offered a post.

“I’m really excited about the quality of people that he’s attracting to the cabinet,” Branstad said. “I’m very proud to have supported Donald Trump for president.”

Trump will be in Iowa on Thursday for a stop on his post-election victory tour. The longest-serving governor in U.S. history, Branstad, 70, started a second run as governor in 2011. He previously held the job from 1983 to 1999.

Branstad’s friendship with Xi may be one of the reasons Trump picked him for the ambassador post. Two days before the Nov. 8 presidential election, during a rally in Sioux City, Trump singled out Branstad as an ideal liaison to China. “You would be our prime candidate to take care of China,” Trump said in calling the governor to the stage.

Friends With Xi

Branstad and Xi met when China’s leader made his first trip to Iowa in 1985 during a sister-state exchange. At the time Xi was a young agricultural official from Hebei province, working as director of the Feed Association of Shijiazhuang Prefecture.

The two men have reconnected several times since then. Despite their cultural differences, the pair forged strong bonds and have used their mutual love of agriculture to bridge the gap between their respective countries on human rights, economic issues and other tensions.

Branstad in 2012 feted Xi, then China’s vice president, with an elaborate dinner at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines, and days after Trump’s election embarked on a previously planned, week-long trade mission to China and Japan, his fourth trip to China in the last seven years.

Branstad, unlike some establishment Republicans in other states, was an enthusiastic backer of Trump even during some of the most difficult spells during the campaign. The governor’s older son, Eric, served as state director for Trump’s campaign.

Iowa favored Trump by about 9 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, after twice voting for President Barack Obama. Trump carried Iowa by the largest margin for a Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

China is Iowa’s second-largest export market, behind Canada. Figures from the U.S.-China Business Council show Iowa exported $2.3 billion in goods and $273 million in services to China in 2015. Crop production accounted for some $1.4 billion of the exports. Agricultural machinery, chemicals and other products were also sold.

Among the main challenges facing the new ambassador will be Trump’s potential trade policy, including a vow to name China as a currency manipulator; state-sponsored computer hacking; and tensions surrounding China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

If Branstad is confirmed, it would trigger a domino effect in the state that would include Iowa getting its first female governor with the ascension of Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, 59, Branstad’s desired political heir.

--With assistance from Kevin Cirilli, Jennifer Epstein and Ting Shi.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at jjacobs68@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Craig Gordon at cgordon39@bloomberg.net

Alex Wayne, Michael Shepard

© 2016 Bloomberg L.P

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