Xi Jinping and Terry Branstad in a 'family reunion' gathering in 2012, during Xi’s visit to the US. Photo: Xinhua

Washington’s top representative in Beijing is packing to leave as the world’s most important relationship hits a new low and needs an “old China hand” more than ever to stop tensions from spiraling out of control.

Terry Branstad, who is seeing out the final weeks of his stint, must be bemoaning the long-gone amiability between the two powers. This started with the bromance between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping three years ago but has of late become fraught with tensions and recriminations. 

Washington has never been so much at loggerheads with Beijing, when issues ranging from Huawei, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea to Covid-19 are making ties fester further.  

Still, Branstad has sought to maintain his diplomatic decorum, hailing in a post on the embassy’s Weibo account that, though he is leaving and there are long-running disputes, the bilateral relations overall are “still as promising and hopeful” as when he took up the position in June 2017. 

“I am proudest of our work in getting the phase one trade deal and delivering tangible results for our communities back home. Our goal remains meaningful, measurable results for American families. We have made significant progress and we will not stop pressing for more.” 

Branstad and his family arrived in Beijing in June 2017. Photo: Weibo via CRI

He also noted that during his tenure, he had visited 26 provinces and autonomous regions throughout China, and would have visited them all if Covid-19 had not limited his travel. “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.” 

His planned departure will be in early October and he will return to Iowa.

Before the announcement about his departure, Branstad was entangled in a squabble after Beijing’s top mouthpiece the People’s Daily rejected an op-ed he wrote titled “Resetting the Relationship based on Reciprocity,” which sought to “set the record straight” for Chinese people regarding bilateral ties.

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weighed in, lambasting Beijing’s hypocrisy and fear of free speech and intellectual debate.   

The 73-year-old diplomat is believed to be too dovish towards Beijing when his supervisor Pompeo and President Trump favor a battering-ram approach. 

“Branstad is perhaps taking all the blames for the US embassy’s failure to foresee and neutralize Beijing’s countervailing measures targeting the US interests and diplomats in China, after Washington’s catalogue of actions against Chinese personnel,” said a senior political attaché at Beijing’s embassy in Mexico City, who previously worked at the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s North America division. 

“The last straw that crushed Branstad’s ambassadorship could be Beijing’s latest tit-for-tat move to limit the places US diplomats can visit and the people they can talk to in China, a clear reprisal against Washington’s bid to ‘advance reciprocity’ in ties that put Chinese emissaries in the US on a tighter leash,” said the attaché who declined to be named. 

A worker removes the insignia of the US Consulate in Chengdu in southwestern China’s Sichuan province on July 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

He also revealed that Branstad told the State Department in July that Beijing could shut the Wuhan consulate to retaliate against the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, yet Washington’s office in Chengdu was ultimately targeted, catching the State Department off guard.   

It is also understood that US diplomats in Hong Kong are facing “unexplained red tape and constraints” when renewing their visas and conducting humint, or covert intelligence-gathering operations, even though the US consulate in the former British territory reports directly to the State Department, not via the American embassy in Beijing.

Branstad’s fraternal ties with President Xi used to be his unique leverage yet that has become a liability amid the headbutting between the nations. 

He first got to know Xi in 1985 as the then-governor of Iowa, when the latter, then the party chief of a poverty-stricken county in Hebei province, visited Iowa’s capital city Des Moines to seek transfer of advanced agricultural technologies.

Back then the 32-year-old Xi reportedly said during his eye-opening tour across the US that all aspects of the country, from business to politics, merited China’s emulation. 

Branstad and Xi (2nd from left) first met in 1985 when the Iowa governor received a delegation from China seeking transfer of agricultural technologies. Photo: WeChat
The two met again in 2012 when Xi, then China’s Vice President, visited Iowa. Photo: Xinhua

The two have been in close contact since then and Xi visited Branstad’s home again in 2012 when he was the vice-president, and a year later Branstad flew to Beijing to congratulate Xi on taking the mantle of the Communist Party and the nation in a reciprocal visit that included a “family dinner” inside Xi’s office suite in Zhongnanhai.  

“It’s indeed understandable that Trump wants to ease out Branstad, when it has become unsuitable for an ambassador who calls Xi an ‘old friend’ to represent the US after China has become an arch-rival, said the Chinese attaché in Mexico City. 

“And Branstad is not a career diplomat and had never served overseas before being posted to Beijing to lead the US mission.” 

The State Department is yet to announce a successor and observers believe the post may be left vacant for a prolonged period, now that it is less than two months away from the November US election. 

Citing a source within the US embassy in Beijing, Hong Kong Global Studies Institute senior researcher Wilson Chan said other senior diplomats in Beijing had stood in for Branstad and the embassy staff there were not expecting a new ambassador any time soon. 

“There will always be a major reshuffle of US ambassadors to major countries once there is a new tenant in the White House, and, for Trump, leaving the post vacant can serve as a warning to Beijing as he has effectively downgraded the diplomatic ties amid his threats about a total decoupling.” 

“Letting Branstad go while not appointing a new ambassador means Trump is shutting the channel of communication, when Branstad could have served as a buffer and create some room of maneuver. But with his departure, all are gone,” said Chan. 

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily speculated on Tuesday that Beijing was not likely to retaliate by asking its ambassador to the US to return. 

Instead, veteran diplomat Cui Tiankai may have his tenure extended to oversee the operation of the Chinese embassy and consulates in the run-up to the election to help Beijing stay abreast of the fickle situation in Washington and to formulate strategies.

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