DES MOINES — President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is causing stress on both sides, but America’s leading voice on the ground in the dispute is urging patience.
Terry Branstad, Iowa’s former governor who now serves as U.S. ambassador to China, advises farmers to take “the long view.” He said the eventual outcome will lead to increased future food exports to a major world market.
“I know we’re going through a stressful time right now,” Branstad said in a weekend interview while he was in Iowa. “I understand that it’s a very difficult situation and I think it’s very unfair what the Chinese are doing and I’m hopeful that it can get resolved in the not-too-distant future, but I think it’s going to take a little while.”
Branstad returned to Iowa for the funeral of his mentor, former Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray, who died July 8. He served as Ray’s lieutenant governor for four years before getting elected in 1982 and eventually becoming the longest-serving governor in U.S. history. Branstad resigned in May 2017 to become the lead American diplomat in a global hot spot.
Since assuming his new duties, Branstad has seen tensions escalate over North Korea’s aggressive nuclear arms expansion and a major trade war break out between America and China — a nation led by longtime Branstad friend President Xi Jinping.
Branstad said he has met with the Xi six times since becoming ambassador and does not think trade tensions between the two nations have hurt their relationship.
The trade dispute ramped up recently when the United States slapped tariffs on $34 billion worth of goods from China. Beijing immediately retaliated with 25 percent tariffs targeting U.S. products, including soybeans and meat, that could cost Iowa farmers millions of dollars. The United States s preparing to respond with tariffs on another $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.
“Unfortunately, when you’ve got two big countries like this, from time to time there’s going to be frictions. We’ve got to keep working to overcome that,” Branstad said by telephone. “I’m just really the voice of America on the ground there in China. I’m going to continue to do what I can, but obviously the final decision is that of the president.”
Branstad said the tariffs are designed to get China’s attention over technology thefts and disrespect toward U.S. intellectual property rights — both ongoing problems.
In addition, Branstad said, the president is trying to address a growing trade deficit by ending developing-nation exceptions for China with the World Trade Organization. The Trump administration position is that those exceptions no longer should apply to a nation that boasts the second-largest economy in the world, Branstad said.
“The administration has taken a strong stand, and we’re hopeful that it eventually will lead to a resolution or at least an improvement in fairness and reciprocity in terms of the trade,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly, but I think we’re going to get this trade issue resolved, hopefully, in a positive way that will give us the opportunity to dramatically increase agricultural exports and address the issues of technology transfer and protecting intellectual property rights.”
On a separate topic, Branstad said he is “very concerned” about reports of unexplained ailments that have afflicted American diplomats in China. Reports have suggested those health problems are similar to ailments reported with American diplomats in Havana.
U.S. State Department officials last month said the agency was evacuating some Americans from Guangzhou for further health screenings. That followed the initial evacuation of a government employee who had reported hearing strange noises in his apartment and was exhibiting symptoms of brain injury.
Branstad said he had been evaluated but noted that “in my case, it was no problem.” He said 22 government employees had been sent to the University of Pennsylvania for medical review.
“We’ve had one confirmed case that is comparable to Havana,” said Branstad, adding that “it’s got to do with noise that is similar to cicadas is what we’ve been hearing. They have several theories but have never determined yet exactly what’s caused it.”
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A Chinese government investigation shed no light on why a U.S. diplomat fell ill at the consulate in Guangzhou after hearing mysterious sounds. Branstad said Chinese officials indicate they are cooperating in the investigation “but we’re not getting the kind of specifics that we hope to try to identify what’s causing it.”
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that the case in Guangzhou was medically similar to the ones seen last year in Cuba. A large segment of the U.S. staff there was withdrawn after many complained of symptoms that included hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, visual difficulties, headaches and fatigue.
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