The presidential transition team has confirmed that Donald Trump has selected Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as his ambassador to China. Under normal circumstances, the choice makes sense. Branstad has known Chinese President Xi Jinping since 1985, when the latter visited Iowa as a young agricultural official, and the two men describe each other as friends. He’s visited China—Iowa’s largest export market—multiple times on trade missions. China’s foreign ministry described Branstad as an “old friend” of the Chinese people.
His appointment also follows the precedent set by the current administration of picking prominent politicians, rather than career diplomats, as ambassador to the world’s largest country: Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, and Montana Sen. Max Baucus were all named to the post by Barack Obama. As the longest serving governor in American history, Branstad may be ready for a new challenge.
But, of course, this is anything but a normal circumstance. Branstad is a free-trader who supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that Trump has pledged to scrap. He did endorse Trump once he was the nominee (and his son ran Trump’s Iowa campaign), which put him in a bit of an awkward spot when it came to Trump’s harsh rhetoric on China. “I know that Donald Trump thinks that the United States has not been very smart and not done a very good job in negotiating the trade deals and I’m sure that we can improve on that. But, that should not mean that we reduce trade. We ought to be looking at ways we can get a better deal and that we could increase our exports,” he told the website IowaWatch in July.
Branstad is walking into a situation in which his new boss has managed to provoke a diplomatic crisis with China before even taking office, not only breaking precedent by taking a call from the president of Taiwan but continuing to tweet broadsides at the Chinese government after doing so. Chinese leaders seem a little perplexed about what to make of Trump, so Xi is likely to have a few questions for his old pal. Being called to account every time Trump has another eruption or does something highly out of the ordinary seems like a pretty thankless task.
The stakes of managing the U.S.-China relationship over the next four years couldn’t possibly be higher. Perhaps Branstad will be a moderating influence on both leaders. Or perhaps he will be totally sidelined by a boss who prefers to communicate through direct phone call and tweet rather than traditional diplomatic channels. As with so much else, it’s too soon to tell.