The Next U.S. Ambassador to China

Robert S. Ross, Fairbank Center Associate and Professor of Political Science at Boston College, explains the strengths — and challenges — facing President-elect Trump’s new Ambassadorial appointment, Terry Branstad.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad meets Xi Jinping in 2012 when Xi was the PRC’s Vice-Chairman. Image credit: Steve Pope/Iowa Governor’s Office, via Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump has selected Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as the next U.S. ambassador to China. Governor Branstad brings a number of strengths to U.S. policy making and to U.S.-China relations.

First, his long experience as governor in working with the Chinese leadership — including his long-term relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping— and his strong commitment to cooperative U.S.-China relations will establish a foundation for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to expand its access to the Chinese leadership.

Second, with his selection of Governor Branstad as ambassador, President-elect Trump signals to the Chinese leadership that he understands the importance to the United States of U.S.-China relations. In recognition of the heightened importance of this relationship, President George W. Bush and President Barak Obama both appointed ambassadors to China who were either senior American politicians or close associates of the president. With his selection of Governor Branstad as his representative to China, Trump similarly signals to Beijing his recognition of the importance of this relationship to the United States.

Third, Governor Branstad understands the complexities of working with the Chinese political system. His extensive efforts to promote agricultural trade between Iowa and China, especially Iowa exports of soy beans and corn, have familiarized him with China’s negotiating culture and with the intricacies of the many layers of the Chinese bureaucracy. This experience will contribute to his ability as ambassador to negotiate with Chinese leaders.

Fourth, because he has understands the Chinese political system and Chinese perspectives on trade and other issues, and because he is committed to U.S.-China cooperation, he can play a positive role in U.S. policy making. In particular, by reporting Chinese perspectives on U.S.-China relations he will be able to contribute to greater sophistication in U.S. policy making and to the development of a mutually beneficial relationship.

Terry Branstad campaigning for Donald Trump in Iowa, image credit: AP/Steve Helber

Nonetheless, at this point in the presidential transition it is not clear that Governor Branstad’s experience and commitment to U.S.-China cooperation will be welcomed by President-elect Trump or by policy makers in his administration. President-elect Trump’s recent statements regarding Taiwan, the South China Sea, and U.S.-China trade suggests that he believes that a more conformational U.S. approach toward China can compel Chinese concessions that will reorder U.S.-China relations and improve U.S. security and economic interests.

If, as suggested by his recent statements, Trump develops a confrontational approach toward China, Chinese leaders will likely respond in kind. China today is far more confident and capable than it was at the start of the Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, when it responded to U.S. challenges with significant retaliation. Should U.S.-China relations deteriorate in the first years of the Trump admiration, Governor Branstad may work to promote moderation and pragmatism in U.S. policy, but he will likely be marginalized and silenced in the U.S. policy making process.

Read Robert S. Ross’s blog post on China in the Era of Xi Jinping. He is the co-editor with Jo Inge Bekkevold of China in the Era of Xi Jinping(Georgetown University Press, 2016).

For more analysis and expert commentary on U.S.-China policy under President Trump, see our recent blog posts on “Trump and Asia,” the Trump-Taiwan phone call, or listen to Fairbank Professor Mark Wu (Harvard Law School) on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”