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China-US relations

The challenge of being an ‘old friend of China’

David M. Lampton says US ambassador-designate Terry Branstad must be wary of the risks as he tries to balance expectations on both sides

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 8:07pm

President-elect Donald Trump’s intention to send Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to China as US ambassador is a good choice. Branstad is in for the challenge of a lifetime. It is not easy carrying the burden of “friend of China”.

For the Chinese, one of the most easily established and enduring ties people can form involves hometown and geographic connections. President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) established such links when he made his first trip to America, in 1985. Then a local official in Hebei province, Xi visited Iowa, the province’s “sister state”. During that journey 31 years ago, Xi also established the bond of human connection with a farm family in the small Iowan town of Muscatine. So, when Xi visited the US again in early 2012 as China’s vice-president and supreme leader in waiting, he found it natural and politically effective to introduce himself to Americans as an “old friend” of Iowa and the state’s long-serving and very popular governor, Terry Branstad. Branstad had been governor of Iowa during both of Xi’s visits.

There is often the implication that the friend will be solicitous of Chinese interests

Now, chosen by Trump as ambassador-designate, Branstad takes to his prospective post the assets and liabilities of being “an old friend” of China and its supreme leader, Xi. This is a big plus for America, but, it is also a heavy burden for the governor. What are the implications of such a status? How useful to American interests is this status of “friend”? Have other US officials or citizens had this status and what happened?

To start with, being a “friend of China” is a fraught status. There is often the implication that the friend will be solicitous of Chinese interests, understanding of Chinese problems, and willing to bargain to reach mutual accommodation. But above all, at this level, a “friend” is about national interests. A friend can provide Beijing’s leaders with an unvarnished and credible readout on the circumstance in the friend’s society. With so much uncertainty surrounding the emerging Trump presidency, for example, this will be a highly valued function for Chinese leaders – just explaining “what on earth is going on in Washington?”

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The second key function of a friend is providing an unobstructed channel of direct communication between the two leaderships, filtered through as little intervening bureaucracy as possible. If Branstad proves to have similar access to Trump as US ambassador Clark “Sandy” Randt had to president George W. Bush in the 2000s, he could well prove important to the relationship. China’s leaders will value him greatly. Being a friend affords you the credibility and access to play this role.

Nonetheless, there are dangers, one of which is that the Chinese think the friend has more influence back home than he does. In the case of the wartime journalist Edgar Snow, for instance, Mao Zedong ( 毛澤東 ) tried to use his “old friend” Snow to convey a message to the Nixon administration about his desire to improve relations. Unfortunately, president Richard Nixon overlooked the message because he saw Snow as not credible – Mao had greater faith in him than did Nixon.

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Another danger is that the friend can be criticised by Americans for not standing up sufficiently for US values and interests. After the June 4, 1989, mayhem in Tiananmen, for instance, “old friend” and national security advisor Brent Scowcroft was sent to Beijing to try to prevent a total rupture in relations, only to receive a torrent of criticism back home for undertaking the mission in the first place.

A final danger is that the friend of China that succeeds in providing a direct channel between the US president and Beijing’s leaders can run afoul of a resentful bureaucracy back in Washington that feels cut out and wages a guerilla war against him.

In short, the “friend” can play an essential, but perilous, role. Trump has made a sound choice in Branstad for many reasons, not least that the governor understands – from the perspective of the economy of Iowa – how interdependent China and America have become. But, will the new president and the Washington bureaucracy listen, and will the prospective ambassador remain credible in the eyes of both his own countrymen and China’s leaders? That is the challenging mission on which Branstad has agreed to embark.

David M. Lampton, former president of the National Committee on US-China Relations and author of Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, is professor and director of China Studies, Johns Hopkins-SAIS