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MOUNT VERNON - Gov. Terry Branstad on Thursday told a group of 12 Chinese students attending Cornell College that he expects the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider his nomination as U.S. Ambassador to China next month.
If confirmed, Branstad told the group during a meeting, he hopes his long-standing friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping will 'help me work with the Chinese government and our government to make it a win-win situation.”
'Donald Trump is a businessman,” Branstad told the students in response to a question about how he might help U.S.-Chinese relations. 'Many years ago, he wrote a book called, ‘The Art of the Deal.' At the end of the day, the best deal is a win-win, where both countries feel it's good for them.”
Citing Chinese interest in U.S. pork and soybeans - that nation purchases more soybeans from the United States than all other countries combined - and his desire to get U.S. beef back in the Chinese market, Branstad said he's got a full slate of issues to tackle.
'I'm hoping that I can play a role in helping work that out so that we can make American great and grow jobs and the economy in this country, and China can continue to grow, too, and we can become even closer in terms of trading partners,” Branstad said.
Challenges and opportunities
During Trump's presidential campaign, he raised several issues with China, including advocating for a tariff on Chinese exports to the United States. He accused the country of manipulating the value of its currency, according to national media reports.
Trump immediately after his election skirted precedent by talking over the phone with Taiwan's leader and saying the One China policy - which recognizes China and Taiwan as one - is negotiable. New U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested barring China from its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
But, the New York Times on Thursday, reported Trump on Wednesday sent a letter to President Xi advocating for developing a 'constructive relationship” - although the two leaders have not talked since Trump took office last month.
It's unclear whether a call is being scheduled.
Branstad on Thursday assured the students his close ties with President Xi gives him 'at least an opportunity, because of the long-standing relationship and trust that we have, to hopefully be a go-between ... between our two very strong leaders.”
'It will be a challenge,” he said. 'But I think it's also a great opportunity ... it's the opportunity of a lifetime.”
how he was picked
Cornell College President Jonathan Brand said he promptly reached out to Branstad in December - after news broke of his nomination to the ambassador post - to request a meeting with their Chinese student populace.
'The thought that hit me immediately was how perfect it would be to have our Chinese students come and congratulate you and be a part of ... officially welcoming you,” Brand told the governor on Thursday. 'How often is it that students from China have this chance - that two hours away from where they live every day and study, that they can meet the person selected as U.S. ambassador to China.”
One student on Thursday asked Branstad to discuss the genesis of his selection. Branstad said he first got an inkling during a rally in Sioux City just days before the election. On stage with Trump, Branstad said the would-be president-elect said, 'Gov. Branstad, he can take care of our relations with China.”
Branstad, just days after Trump's win, left for China on a trade mission and returned to speculation of his potential ambassadorship. Vice President-Elect Mike Pence and Trump's new Chief of Staff Reince Priebus eventually called a meeting to see if Branstad was interested.
He affirmed he was.
'Then I got a call from Donald Trump, and he said there are 13 people that have expressed an interest in being ambassador to China, but I think you'd be the best,” Branstad said. 'I said, ‘Well, thank you for your confidence.' ”
The next week, Branstad met with Trump's transition team in Trump Tower in New York.
'That's when he ended up making the final request,” Branstad said. 'He announced this the next day, which was really very early.”
Before ending Thursday's meeting with the Chinese students, Branstad encouraged them to serve like him as relationship-building ambassadors in this country and upon returning home.
'Tell them about the nice people you met in Iowa,” he said.
After the meeting, the students said they felt closer not only to Iowa's leadership, but to officials in their home nation.
'In their normal lives, they are people living far away from us,” said Chengchen Shu, one of the Cornell students who met with Branstad. 'But after he talked about Xi Jinping, it seems like we are closer.”
International students on campus
Cornell's 45 international students is about double from fall 2015. Chinese students account for the majority, although 20 different countries are represented. Cornell President Brand said the aim is to continue driving up international enrollment.
'I think we're very confident that it's going to continue to grow,” he said. 'It benefits our students who are from the U.S. when they get to be on a relatively intimate college campus and they get to interact with people from all over the world.”
The Chinese students on Thursday didn't press Branstad on recent Trump Administration immigration orders, blocking all refugees and anyone coming from seven mostly-Muslim countries.
And Brand said Branstad likely doesn't know what that could mean for Iowa colleges and universities. But the state's public institutions have expressed concern the laws could hinder applicants, dampen interest, and keep out students from affected nations.
Brand told The Gazette he, too, worries.
'It would be hard not to wonder what it could mean for international student recruitment. I think we'd be shortsighted if we didn't wonder,” he said, calling international enrollment 'a great aspect of the American higher education landscape.”
'Our international students are incredible,” he said. 'They add a level of personality, flavor, activity, interest, that you just can't get from any other student body.”
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