US Ambassador to China to Step Down Next Month

US Ambassador to China to Step Down Next Month
In this June 28, 2017, file photo, U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad makes comments about pro-democracy activist and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo during a photocall and remarks to journalists at the Ambassador's residence in Beijing. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
Cathy He

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad will step down from his post in early October, ending a three-year tenure in Beijing marked by deteriorating relations between the two countries.

Branstad, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, informed the president of his decision in a phone call last week, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement on Sept. 14. It didn’t provide the reason for his departure.

“I am proudest of our work in getting the phase one trade deal and delivering tangible results for our communities back home,” Branstad said at an internal staff meeting on Sept. 14, according to the U.S. Embassy.

Prior to the embassy’s announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thanked Branstad for his service on Twitter.

“Ambassador Branstad has contributed to rebalancing U.S.-China relations so that it is results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair,” Pompeo said. “This will have lasting, positive effects on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”

Recently, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, refused to carry an op-ed written by Branstad.

Pompeo last week said the paper’s rejection exposed the CCP’s “fear of free speech and serious intellectual debate,” and called out the regime’s hypocrisy in its reasoning for the rejection. In a letter drafted to the U.S. Embassy in China, People’s Daily complained of a lack of fair and reciprocal treatment by the United States.

He noted that China’s ambassador to the United States this year alone has published five op-eds in prominent U.S. outlets such as The Washington Post and given exclusive interviews to media such as CNN and CBS.

Branstad’s proposed op-ed, titled “Resetting the Relationship Based on Reciprocity,” argued that the Chinese regime has exploited the United States’ open society, while preventing U.S. officials, including Branstad himself, from engaging freely with the Chinese people.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded that Branstad’s article was “full of loopholes, seriously inconsistent with facts, and wantonly attacks and smears China.”

Branstad, 72, an Iowa native who spent more than 22 years as that state’s governor—the longest tenure of a state governor in U.S. history—resigned in May 2017 to take the diplomatic post in China.

He had long been acquainted with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, having hosted Xi in Iowa when the latter was still a young agricultural official from northern China in 1985. Over the years, the two kept in contact and Xi has called Branstad an “old friend.”

Pompeo said in a tweet that Trump chose Branstad for ambassador “because his decades-long experience dealing with China made him the best person to represent the Administration and to defend American interests and ideals in this important relationship.”

Soon after arriving in Beijing in June 2017, Branstad welcomed U.S. beef back to the Chinese market after a 14-year ban, saying, “I know it is a key priority of the president to reduce the trade deficit, and this is one of the ways we can do it.”

But trade relations quickly soured, as the United States imposed tariffs on Chinese products citing China’s unfair trade practices, and China retaliated in kind. Other disputes followed over technology, human rights, and the response to the CCP virus pandemic.

Branstad joined U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for trade talks with Chinese counterparts in Beijing in May 2019.

The phase one deal signed the following January represented a truce, but didn’t address the more fundamental complaints of the U.S. side.

The U.S. Embassy statement also noted Branstad’s role in the effort to reduce the flow of fentanyl from China to the United States, including a 2018 pact in which China agreed to list the synthetic opioid and all its derivatives as controlled substances.

Branstad also made a rare visit to Tibet in May 2019, where he expressed concerns about the Chinese regime’s interference in the freedom of Tibetan Buddhists to organize and practice their religion.

In December 2019, on Human Rights Day, Branstad called out the regime’s ongoing human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, religious groups, and dissidents.

In a statement, the ambassador said that during his time in China, he had “witnessed the failure of the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] governance model to protect the fundamental freedoms” of its people, “as stipulated in the Declaration and in the PRC’s own laws,” referring to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which China is a signatory.

“The PRC cannot expect to earn the international respect it seeks as long as it fails to abide by its commitment to defend individual human rights and freedoms,” Branstad said at the time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 
Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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