US Ambassador to China Terry Branstad steps down amid rapidly deteriorating relations

The US ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, is stepping down, Mike Pompeo announced today, amid an impasse over trade, Hong Kong and coronavirus.

The Secretary of State thanked Branstad, tweeting that he had ‘contributed to rebalancing U.S.-China relations so that it is results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair.’

The reasons for the ambassador’s departure were not immediately clear, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – while acknowledging Pompeo’s tweet – said it had not received notice of his resignation.

However, the former two-term Iowa governor, 73, roiled Beijing earlier this month with an opinion piece penned for the Communist Party newspaper the People’s Daily which had accused China of ‘exploiting’ US openness in recent years.

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 in June 2017

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 in June 2017

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted early on Monday to announce that Branstad was stepping down from his post

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted early on Monday to announce that Branstad was stepping down from his post

Branstad had been in office since May 2017, representing Washington in Beijing during a period of strained ties with China, marked by tensions over trade, regional territorial claims, the coronavirus pandemic, and unrest in Hong Kong.

Pompeo in Warsaw, Poland, last month

Pompeo in Warsaw, Poland, last month

In June, he was summoned by Beijing after President Donald Trump signed a law that paved the way for sanctions over Hong Kong, an action the foreign ministry slammed as ‘gross interference in China’s internal affairs’.

Last year, he called on Beijing to open a ‘substantive dialogue’ with the Dalai Lama during a rare visit to Tibet, a region where the central government is accused of widespread repression.

Last week, Branstad’s article for the People’s Daily prompted a war of words between Washington and Beijing, who said it was not fit for publication.

The U.S. Embassy had contacted the People’s Daily on August 26 about the piece, asking that it be printed in full without any edits by September 9. 

Pompeo tweeted that the Communist Party refused to run Branstad’s op-ed while the Chinese ambassador to the United States ‘is free to publish in any U.S. media outlet.’

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.’  

An early supporter of Trump’s run for the White House in 2016, Branstad was appointed soon after the election.

At the time, Trump’s transition team praised his ‘tremendous understanding of China and Chinese people.’

He was reported to have a long-standing relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he first met in the 1980s.

Trump administration’s China relations

April, 2017: Donald Trump welcomes China’s President Xi Jinping for two-day summit at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Trump hails the ‘tremendous progress’ made at the meeting and Xi references further understanding and trust between the countries.

In May, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reveals a ten-part agreement between Beijing and Washington to build up trade.

March, 2018: The White House imposes a broadside of tariffs worth $50 billion on Chinese goods coming into the US.

The Trump administration claims that China is stealing American tech and intellectual property.

Beijing retaliates in April with its own import taxes on a raft of US products.

The trade war marks a shift from the peaceful overtures of the previous year.

July, 2018: Trade war turn ugly as Trump unleashes fresh tariffs on Chinese goods worth another $34 billion.

China lashes back with its own tariffs on US commodities worth $34 billion.

Trump says that China has been ‘ripping off’ America for years, while the Chinese accuse Washington of ‘trade bullying.’

The resulting impact on global stock exchanges put the world on edge.

December, 2018: US ally Canada arrests Meng Wanzhou, CEO of Huawei, at Washington’s behest.

Department of Justice claims that Meng breached trade sanctions against Iran, committed fraud and demands extradition.

China detains two Canadian citizens who it alleges threaten its national security.

March, 2019: Huawei sues the US for banning federal agencies for using its technology.

The White House warns other countries against deals with Huawei and using its consumer products.

May, 2019: Trade war is ramped up as US increases tariffs from 10 to 25 percent, worth $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

China hits back with import taxes worth $60 billion.

Trump believes that he can bring China to heel, while Beijing says he has ‘extravagant expectations.’

White House bans all US companies from using foreign-made telecoms equipment.

November, 2019: Trump sings bill backing the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.

January, 2020: Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He sign ‘Phase One’ of a trade deal as the countries finally appear to be putting an end to their two year-long trade war.

Deal eases tariffs and China pledges to buy US goods worth $200 billion and enforce laws to protect US intellectual property.

However, many of the tariffs remain and it also fails to tackle Beijing’s colossal subsidies of Chinese companies which American CEOs have for decades decried for stacking global markets against them.

Trump says these issues can be ironed out in ‘phase two’ of the deal.

Tensions soar amid the coronavirus pandemic as Trump bans travel from China on January 31.

The US accuses China of covering up extent of the pandemic after it was designated as such by the WHO.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman makes spurious claims that the virus was brought to China by a US soldier.

China later continues to call it the ‘China virus’ despite the countries agreeing a level of cooperation to deal with the crisis.

March, 2020: China expels US journalists from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

It also demands that other American publications hand over information about their activities in China.

July 14, 2020: Trump ends special trade status for Hong Kong and introduces sanctions for companies on the island which are pro-Beijing.

Beijing furiously responds to US ‘interference’ in its domestic affairs.

July 22, 2020: US orders China to shut its consulate in Houston, Texas, claiming it was used for spying.

China responds by closing American consulate in Chengdu. 

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