If given a Hollywood treatment, the first three decades of former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s deep engagement with China would make for a heartening feel-good movie. Unfortunately, the sequel – Branstad’s more than three-year stint as U.S. Ambassador to China – could only be scripted as a tragedy.
The original movie would begin in 1983 with Branstad’s signing of Iowa’s Sister State/Province agreement with Hebei Province, followed by Branstad’s 1984 visit to China, the first of many trade delegations he would lead in the coming years. The film would then trace the ever-expanding array of economic, cultural and academic exchanges that has cemented Iowa’s special relationship to China.
At the center of the story would be Branstad’s hospitality toward a young provincial agricultural official named Xi Jinping during the latter’s 1985 visit to Iowa. The blossoming friendship between the two would culminate in Xi’s return to Iowa in 2012, now as Vice President and heir apparent to leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. At the dinner in Xi’s honor, the camera would pan the room to capture the assembled guests, many of whom played key roles in crafting a set of mutually beneficial partnerships. The final scene would settle on Branstad and Xi raising their glasses in a toast as Xi offers that “For me, you are America.”
The sequel focusing on Branstad’s ambassadorship would begin happily enough as Beijing officials welcome him as an “old friend of China.” But the story would soon darken. After Branstad announced his pending resignation as ambassador on September 14, a commentary in China’s Global Times newspaper lamented his “embarrassing role” in overseeing “the worst three years of deterioration in Sino-U.S. relations.”
The reality is less stark. Branstad retains many friends in China. He brought the same folksy, Midwestern charm to China that made him a popular politician back in Iowa. His daughter and grandchildren moved with Branstad and his wife Christine to Beijing. The ambassador visited 26 provinces, demonstrating respect for Chinese culture and building people-to-people relationships. Branstad spoke at the groundbreaking of the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm modeled after Kimberly Farms in Iowa. In announcing his resignation, Branstad declared: “Getting to know the Chinese people, meeting them in their homes and hearing their personal stories, has been one of the great privileges of this job.”
Branstad also sought to calm tensions at key points. Last April, he denied allegations that China deliberately held up shipments of medical equipment to the U.S. and advised that questions about China’s early mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic be set aside until the virus was under control. Branstad also played roles in the reopening of the Chinese market to U.S. beef exports and the successful conclusion of the January 2020 trade deal.
But Branstad’s instincts for problem-solving proved a poor fit in an administration that turned increasingly toward outright confrontation in its dealings with China. Almost plaintively, Branstad once suggested that “the best and most effective way to try and get action here is not to shame them publicly but to meet with them privately.”
Yet he found himself squeezed between an American president given to threatening and bombastic tweets and a China whose diplomats resorted to Wolf Warrior diplomacy at the slightest criticism. It didn’t help that Branstad had little experience across many areas of dispute in U.S.-China relations outside of trade. He was seldom consulted by the White House on policy issues and his friendship with Xi brought few payoffs. Iowa Nice only goes so far.
Despite Branstad’s inability as ambassador to stem the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations, his earlier embrace of citizen diplomacy as a vehicle for building mutually beneficial ties among local governments, businesses, cultural groups and schools remains an impressive part of his legacy. Sadly, these connections have themselves become threatened as the political rivalry between Washington and Beijing has sown distrust and severed relationships. Both sides have cut back on cultural and academic exchanges, reduced access for journalists and diplomats and curtailed various communications media.
Such steps are unwise and dangerous. People-to-people ties are all the more vital at times when state-to-state relations are at their worst. Such relationships serve as ballast that can help stabilize the relationship once conditions permit. Branstad acted upon this understanding as governor but was powerless to prevent the erosion of citizen’s diplomacy as ambassador. Unlike in Hollywood, in the game of nations, a happy ending is far from guaranteed.
Originally published in the Des Moines Register, September 20, 2020