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Can Ambassador Branstad's Relationship With China's President Ease Tensions?


We're going to focus for a few minutes on China, where a former Iowa governor now serves as the country's ambassador. Terry Branstad was nominated by President Trump last summer and has a long history with China's president. NPR's Anthony Kuhn caught up with the ambassador in Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At the ambassador's residence, there's a black-and-white photograph of two smiling young men - Terry Branstad, then first-term governor of Iowa, and Xi Jinping, then a county official in Iowa's sister state, Northern China's Hubei province.

TERRY BRANSTAD: I was impressed with him and his group from the beginning. They were friendly. And they were from our sister state, so we wanted to treat them well.

KUHN: Branstad recalls how, back in 1985, Xi rode a boat on the Mississippi River.

BRANSTAD: He said that, when I think of America, I think of the wonderful people I met in Iowa in '85. And he calls us old friends. So that's important in the Chinese culture, longtime friendships.

KUHN: One of the biggest payoffs of this special relationship Branstad says is access.

BRANSTAD: I've been given access to more Chinese leaders in key positions I think than anybody here in recent weeks. And I'm hopeful that by directly and frankly conveying the concerns of our country, that will have some impact.

KUHN: Those concerns include North Korea. Branstad's just back from his second trip to China-North Korea border since arriving here last June. China is North Korea's biggest trading partner.

BRANSTAD: And in both of those stops, I found a very sincere effort to enforce the U.N. sanctions. And I think that's making a difference.

KUHN: His most recent trip was to the city of Dandong, which sits across the Yalu River from North Korea. Branstad says he met with local officials there.

BRANSTAD: And it's had some economic impact in their community. They are in the process of reducing the number of North Korean workers that are working in that area.

KUHN: Branstad says that the U.S. and China are cooperating in trying to stop cross-border smuggling in violation of the U.N. sanctions. He adds that the two are also cooperating well on fighting the flow of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl from China into the U.S. But Shi Yinhong (ph), an international relations expert at People's University in Beijing, says that it will be difficult for Branstad to overcome larger trends that are reshaping the U.S.-China relationship.

SHI YINHONG: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: "Branstad will likely have some influence," he says, "but it'll probably be minor compared to the influence of President Trump and the views of his administration members." Those views are getting increasingly hawkish on trade. Branstad says he's told Chinese officials that unless they level the playing field for U.S. companies here, give them the market access Chinese companies enjoy in the U.S. and respect intellectual property, then there will be consequences.

BRANSTAD: I've tried to drive home the message that the patience of the president, the Congress, the American business community is growing short.

KUHN: Shifting political forces are also changing the relationship. The U.S. is refocusing its security strategy away from fighting terrorism to competing with rival great powers including Russia and China. Meanwhile, since becoming president five years ago, Branstad notes, Xi Jinping has rolled back civil liberties and concentrated power in the Communist Party.

BRANSTAD: There's tremendous surveillance that goes on of people here, and they don't want to have any threat to their continuation of one-party rule.

KUHN: Branstad has spoken frankly and publicly about human rights, including the death in police custody of the late Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. This apparently has not hurt his relations with President Xi Jinping, who Branstad says recently had him over for dinner.

BRANSTAD: We had that just a couple weeks ago - my wife and I, our daughter, her husband, our two grandchildren with not only President Xi and Madame Peng but their 25-year-old daughter.

KUHN: Xi's daughter graduated from Harvard University in 2014. Since then, she's kept or been kept out of the public eye, offering no clue as to whether or how her father has benefited from her Ivy League education. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.