As the longest-serving governor in American history, no one can doubt the commitment of Iowa’s Terry Branstad to public service. He shows no signs of slowing down, however, as he prepares to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Beijing and U.S.-Chinese relations appear headed for a rough patch. Yet the greatest threat Branstad will face to a peaceful and prosperous relationship with China may not come from an increasingly aggressive Beijing, but rather from a White House so far unsure of any strategy but bluster. The incoming ambassador has experience standing up to outsized personalities to get things done — but will he continue to do so when that personality is sitting in the Oval Office?
Governor Branstad has overseen deepening commercial and cultural ties between Iowa and China, which will serve him well as he prepares to shoulder American interests in Asia. The Hawkeye State exports almost $15 billion of goods and services each year, nearly half of which goes to the Asia-Pacific. Food exports to China alone have doubled over just the last three years, with Chinese customers now buying a quarter of all Iowan soybeans.
In addition to Iowa’s growing status in the international marketplace, deepening people-to-people ties have thoroughly enriched the state’s culture and economy. Foreign-born Iowans make up more than 1,000 business owners, almost half of whom hail from Asia. 12,700 foreign students came to study in Iowa last year, including almost 6,000 Chinese students, contributing $366 million to the state’s economy. Branstad could use these successes as a model for mutually beneficial engagement with China — if the president lets him.
The U.S.-Chinese relationship certainly needs improvement, but it will take thoughtful, principled foreign policy to do so. Chinese aggression in the South Pacific needs to be checked. Progress on a bilateral investment treaty — which would provide American businesses market access in China more on par with that enjoyed by Chinese businesses here — is needed for fairer trade. Chinese hackers have stolen vast quantities of wealth from American companies in the form of intellectual property, trade secrets, and advanced research, but to little consequence. Consistent pressure and an intelligent strategy are required — but the new administration so far seems uninterested in either.
President Donald Trump made a tougher line on China a keystone of his campaign. Mr. Trump seemed to make a down payment on those promises shortly after his election with an unprecedented phone call to the leader of Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway province. For weeks President Donald Trump insisted that recognition of Taiwan as a part of China — which Beijing views as a critical national interest — was up for negotiation. Yet in the face of Chinese fury, Trump unceremoniously backed down. In hopes of looking tough, the administration picked a dangerous fight without realizing what it would take to follow through. To Taiwan we seem unreliable, and to China we look weak.
Mr. Trump also campaigned on threatening a trade war with Beijing, and he has begun appointing officials who have all but promised to do just that. Yet here, too, the administration seems to be picking a fight without a full understanding of both their weapons and vulnerabilities. The 45 percent tariff floated by Mr. Trump and his staff sounds satisfying, but such a blunt policy tool, and its likely retaliation, would hit everyday Americans the hardest. Iowan farmers, for whom crop prices are already near or below the cost of production, have no margin of error to absorb a poorly-planned trade war.
Governor Branstad is about to become the most important diplomat in an administration that so far seems to reject the value of diplomacy. His success — indeed, America’s success — may depend on his ability to push the president toward a different path. The governor was friendlier to Trump than many during the primaries, and in an administration known for valuing loyalty above expertise, Mr. Branstad may be the rare member of the team exercising both.
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The governor must ensure that American interests are protected without unnecessary sacrifice of blood or treasure. Doing so might mean that the first national leader he stares down will be his own.
• Harry Krejsa, an Indianola native, is a Research Associate with the Center for a New American Security working in the Asia-Pacific Security Program. He previously worked as a policy analyst for the Congressional Joint Economic Committee and has served as a researcher with the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at National Defense University.