‘Tough issues’ abound as China Ambassador Branstad tackles North Korea and trade

Source: By Kyle Munson, Des Moines Register • Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2017

US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad talks about the changes he’s observed in Beijing since his first trip in 1984, during an Iowa Sister States reception on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in Beijing. Kelsey Kremer/The Register and Pulitzer Center

BEIJING — It was almost possible to listen Wednesday evening to Ambassador Terry Branstad speak to a roomful of Iowans on the opposite side of the globe and forget how drastically his life and global politics have changed in the last year.

Branstad and a cast of familiar Iowa characters reminisced about the unlikely winding road that began with an Iowa Sister States relationship forged in 1983 between Iowa and China’s Hebei province.

That, in turn, sparked a friendship between our nation’s longest-serving governor and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But Branstad also hinted at the hot seat he now occupies.

“We’ve got a lot of tough issues to deal with,” Branstad acknowledged in his remarks. “North Korea, trade issues, all of that.

“We just had a telephone call just the other night (between the U.S. and China). This is the eighth one. So that’s an extraordinary amount of communication between the leaders of these two biggest economies in the world.”

The Trump Administration hopes Branstad can capitalize on his long relationship with Xi, whose first visit to Iowa in 1985 was a life-changing experience for the young agricultural official who has since become president of our fellow top-tier superpower.

All these years later, Branstad is now the chief U.S. diplomat in China — in the same capital city as his “Old Friend,” Xi.

Branstad is on the doorstep of North Korea’s increasingly dangerous arsenal of nuclear missiles and other potential catastrophes that the governor of a powerhouse farm state typically doesn’t face.

President Donald Trump’s remarks Tuesday to the United Nations cast North Korea among “the wicked few” nations. He threatened them with total destruction.

Trump is scheduled to visit Beijing and Branstad later this fall — what the ambassador characterized as a continuous parade of guests through the embassy, including top military officials, governors and everyday Iowans.

“This is an active post,” Branstad said.

The event also served as an early toast ahead of Saturday’s groundbreaking of the U.S.-China Friendship Demonstration Farm, a research farm and tourist site being developed northeast of Beijing in Luanping County.

It’s being modeled after Rick and Martha Kimberley’s Iowa farm near Maxwell — the same farm Xi visited in 2012.

Appropriately enough, many among the few-dozen people in the room represented a range of agricultural giants — Monsanto, Syngenta, Hyline, Diamond V, etc.

Branstad sported a thematically consistent pin on his lapel: Stars and Stripes in the shape of a beef cow. The ambassador added that just the day before his wife, Chris, ordered beef to serve in the embassy’s commissary.

The farm groundbreaking rated front-page news in the China Daily.

“I want to give Gov. (Bob) Ray some credit,” Branstad also said of his Republican predecessor for whom global outreach was a signature issue, “because he came to China before me.”

Branstad first set foot in this country in 1984 with a delegation of about 50 Iowans.

“It was like going back in time,” he said, because all the traffic was either bicycles or military vehicles.

He and the delegation even rode a coal-fired steam locomotive.

The bicycles are back in force in Beijing in the form of rental bikes painted yellow or other bright colors, visible along nearly every street.

And now Branstad is back for an extended stay — engaging in tricky diplomacy in a part of the world that can’t help but feel a little on the brink.

These notes from China are just a quick, immediate update as part of a longer and more in-depth project on U.S-China relations, “Iowa in Heart of China,” that is being produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The Register goes to China

Des Moines Register journalists Kyle Munson and Kelsey Kremer are in China to produce an ambitious project, “Iowa in the Heart of China.” With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, they are reporting from Beijing, Shanghai and other cities to better understand the U.S.-China story at the start of Terry Branstad’s tenure.