You’re hired! Even as he celebrates his selection for the world’s most important diplomatic apprenticeship, Terry Branstad should also steel himself for plenty of headaches ahead. Iowa’s long-serving Governor earned selection as U.S. Ambassador to China by virtue of his long-standing personal ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping, which stretch back three decades. But how far does friendship go in managing relations between the world’s two most powerful countries? Branstad will soon find out in his new role.
Whatever warm feelings Xi Jinping may hold toward Terry Branstad are secondary to his assessment of Branstad’s soon-to-be boss. During the presidential election campaign, many Chinese commentators expressed a preference for Donald Trump. Partly, this stemmed from perceptions of Hillary Clinton as a hawk who, as Secretary of State, championed the Obama Administration’s Asian Pivot strategy and aligned the U.S. against China on the South China Sea issue. Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward China, on the other hand, was dismissed as campaign bombast.
Chinese leaders also welcomed Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Instead of Asian economies oriented toward an American-centered trade order that excludes China, those same countries will now sign on to the China-centered Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which excludes the United States. If Trump holds to his pledge to do away with TPP, Beijing will consider this a welcome gift from the new administration.
Weary of American leaders who insist that China abide by Western principles of democracy, human rights and international law to which Chinese leaders do not subscribe, Chinese leaders see Trump, by contrast, as a tough but pragmatic deal-maker who will avoid challenging the legitimacy of China’s one party political system.
Trump’s recent phone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen – a breach of understandings that have prevailed since diplomatic relations were restored between the U.S. and China in 1979 – has upset this hopeful attitude to a degree. Yet Beijing responded with restraint, blaming Taiwan for taking advantage of Trump’s supposed naiveté about the sensitivities surrounding the U.S., China and cross-strait relations.
The Chinese leadership will view Branstad’s appointment as reassuring. Given Branstad’s early support for Trump and his son’s involvement with the Trump campaign, Beijing likely assumes that Branstad will have access to the Trump White House. The choice of a political appointee who enjoys such close ties with Chinese leaders will be interpreted as an indication that Trump seeks to cultivate a direct and personal relationship with Xi, mediated by someone trusted on both sides.
Branstad’s long advocacy for strong U.S.-China economic ties will give Beijing hope that Trump will renege on his campaign promises to declare China a currency manipulator and to slap high tariffs on imports from China.
Yet Branstad will also face some difficult headwinds. Although Ambassadors do not, by and large, make policy, they do help implement policy on the ground and serve as sometimes-crucial intermediaries. While Branstad knows a great deal about agricultural trade with China, he has no experience with the broad range of issues that make up the most complex great power relationship in the world.
Trump, himself a novice at international affairs, has so far shown little interest in tapping the deep well of expertise that presidents have at their disposal through the State Department, the intelligence agencies and other bureaucratic arms of the U.S. government.
Operating without knowledge of history, precedent or prior commitments, is a recipe for confusion, error and misunderstanding. Much will depend upon whether Trump’s choice for Secretary of State is someone who will respect the value of formal policy-making channels and seek the guidance of professional diplomats.
Trump’s unusual and erratic communication style also presents a challenge. If diplomacy by tweet continues once Trump enters the White House, then Branstad will have his hands full putting out fires caused by his own boss.
The policy questions that confront the leaderships of both sides are certainly difficult enough. The U.S. interest in freedom of navigation bumps up against China’s desire to control nearby seas and the rich resources they contain. America’s need to deter North Korea’s nuclear threat potentially conflicts with China’s fear that the collapse of China’s exasperating ally could lead to chaos and uncontrollable refugee flows along its border. Trump’s skepticism about climate change threatens to undo the joint initiatives that the U.S. and China have launched to tackle that problem. The list of complex issues is daunting: cyber security, intellectual property rights, military transparency, imbalances in trade and many others.
Having spent his entire career in Iowa, Terry Branstad faces a steep learning curve in preparing for a high profile diplomatic posting in the capitol city of an emerging superpower while reporting to a new and inexperienced president. With personal friendships as his calling card, the Governor will soon find out how well “Iowa nice” travels under such circumstances.