BEIJING – The departing U.S. ambassador on Tuesday defended a tough approach to China that has riled relations between the world's two largest economies, saying the Trump administration has made progress on trade and that he hopes that will extend to other areas.
Terry Branstad, the longtime Iowa governor chosen by President Donald Trump to be envoy to China, agreed however that China has generally reacted to pressure by responding in kind, from closing consulates to imposing import tariffs.
“The unfortunate thing is we’re trying to rebalance the relationship so we have fairness and reciprocity, but every time we do something, they keep it unbalanced,” he said in an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Branstad is returning to Iowa this weekend after three years and three months as ambassador in Beijing, the longest he and his wife have lived outside of his home state. No successor has been named.
After launching a trade war in 2018 and restricting Chinese telecom giant Huawei on national security grounds, the Trump administration has further ramped up pressure on China this year.
It imposed new restrictions on Chinese diplomats and journalists; closed the Chinese consulate in Houston and repeatedly criticized China on multiple fronts, from its handling of the coronavirus to its military moves in the South China Sea and its human rights record in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, home to largely Muslim ethnic groups.
China has rebuked the U.S. and taken parallel measures, including the closing of a U.S. consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu. With almost daily heated exchanges, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that ties face their gravest challenge since the normalization of relations in 1979.
Branstad downplayed such fears, noting the relationship has weathered ups and downs in the past. He conceded, though, the concern that pressure on China could lead to a downward spiral of growing restrictions.
He cited the so-called phase one trade deal, reached in January, and China’s agreement to list fentanyl as a controlled substance as positive developments. The U.S. has been trying to reduce the flow of the opioid from China.
On trade, China promised to strengthen protection of foreign technology rights and industry secrets. China has made similar promises in the past, and companies say they are waiting to see how the commitments are carried out.
“I think in the area of trade, we’ve got their attention and we’re making progress,” Branstad said. “I hope we can in the other (areas), in terms of the treatment of our media, the treatment of our diplomats.”
Branstad, who traveled widely in China during his stint, complained about needing to get government approval for every visit. He asked to go to Tibet three times before his visit last year. Once there, though, he said he had open exchanges with students and teachers. Elsewhere, his experience varied.
The former Iowa governor has longstanding ties to Chinese leader Xi Jinping and was initially seen as someone who could soothe relations. He came to China as governor in 1984 after signing a sister-state agreement with Hebei province, and he met Xi the following year when the then-county level Communist Party official visited Iowa as head of an agricultural delegation.
While the U.S.-China relationship has become fraught, Branstad maintained that such long-term ties remain valuable. He said he has met Xi several times since arriving in China in 2017, including a private family dinner in early 2018 that included Branstad's daughter and grandchildren.
“I think he still has very good feelings about me and about Iowa and the way we treated him,” Branstad said. “And, you know, I found in this culture, personal relationships are important. And yet I represent the United States.”
Branstad blamed the coronavirus for souring the relationship, saying Xi had assured Trump the outbreak was under control when in fact it wasn't. China has been criticized for covering up the crisis in the initial days, though praised for its strict measures to stem the spread later.
“0bviously, that’s had a lot to do with, I think, the president’s feelings towards China,” Branstad said.
Trump has blamed China for the pandemic, which some analysts see as an attempt to deflect blame from his handling of the crisis ahead of a tough re-election battle in November.
Branstad expects to campaign in Iowa for Trump and other Republican candidates. He said he would focus in part on what the administration has done in China and the need to maintain a relationship but insist on fairness.
“I’ve never lost an election and it’s still in my blood,” the 73-year-old political veteran said.