Terry Branstad's Arrival in Beijing Ends U.S. Embassy's Months of Limbo

By Josh Chin Features Dow Jones Newswires

Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad touted trade as he took the helm of an important diplomatic mission that has been mired in uncertainty under the Trump administration.

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Earlier this month, David Rank, who had headed the embassy's work as chargé d'affaires since the departure of former Ambassador Max Baucus, resigned over the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Before that, staffers had complained of a lack of communication from Washington they said made it difficult to do their jobs.

U.S. diplomats have said they hoped Mr. Branstad's arrival would steady the ship. The former six-term Iowa governor, who endorsed Mr. Trump in the election, is one of a relatively small number of ambassadors to be formally nominated and approved under the new president.

Appearing before reporters with family members at the ambassador's residence on Wednesday, Mr. Branstad struck an optimistic tone, saying he hoped to work with China on issues like North Korea and trade.

"We recognize this is an important relationship between the two greatest economic powers in the world," he said. "We want to work together to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula."

Mr. Branstad arrives at a time of uncertainty in relations between Washington and Beijing. U.S. President Donald Trump reversed course on earlier threats to launch a trade war with China in exchange for Beijing's help reining in North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, but in recent tweets appeared undecided about that strategy. Other elements of U.S. policy in China, including human rights, have been left in the air.

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In his remarks Wednesday, which largely echoed a taped message published on Chinese video sites earlier this week, Mr. Branstad said he had traveled to China several times before on trade missions and recalled welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping on a visit to Iowa in 1985, when Mr. Xi was a local-level Communist Party secretary.

China's Foreign Ministry refers to Mr. Branstad as an "old friend." Chinese government advisers say Beijing hopes his agricultural background and ties with Mr. Trump will make him a strong voice in favor of trade inside the administration.

Mr. Branstad concentrated most of his brief comments Wednesday on trade, saying he hoped to help reduce trade barriers in a way that would both benefit Chinese businesses and increase U.S. jobs.

"Being the governor of an agricultural state, we sell a lot of soybeans and pork in China. We're excited about the trade expansion," he said, noting the recent resumption of U.S. beef imports into China. He also flagged a visit to Beijing later this week by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who he said was eager to work out a deal with China over rice imports.

Mr. Branstad was cautious when asked whether he intended to push China to allow Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo to seek medical treatment abroad. The dissident writer was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer last month was and recently granted medical parole.

"We Americans would like to see him have the opportunity for treatment if that could be of help," he said. "But it's important that we work together between our two countries to address these important human-rights issues."

Because of his relationship with leaders in both countries, Mr. Branstad said, "I hope I can be a go-between on these important issues."

U.S. ambassadors are closely scrutinized in China. Former President Barack Obama's first envoy, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, made waves by having a certain command of Mandarin, and later sparked controversy by showing up at a pro-democracy protest in Beijing. Mr. Huntsman's successor, former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, was celebrated as a humble public servant after photos surfaced of him buying his own coffee and carrying his own luggage in the airport.

The most recent ambassador, Mr. Baucus, a former Montana senator, had a lower public profile, but was well known in diplomatic circles for dispensing with protocol and going off script in meetings with Chinese officials.

Write to Josh Chin at josh.chin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 28, 2017 01:30 ET (05:30 GMT)