U.S. ambassador to China steps down, doesn’t notify Beijing

Foreign Affairs

Terry Branstad, the Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to China, who began his tenure in 2017, has abruptly resigned to work on the U.S. president’s reelection campaign.

terry branstad at trump rally in 2016
Back to the campaign trail for Ambassador Terry Branstad. He is pictured above at a Donald Trump event in 2016. CC/Max Goldberg.

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad will step down effective October, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. No replacement has been named. Beijing has “not yet received notification about the end of Ambassador Branstad’s tenure,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

This will leave America without an ambassador in China at a very difficult — and potentially dangerous — time in the bilateral relationship. This situation could continue until well into 2021 even if Trump is reelected.

  • “Branstad, who is 73, did not say why he was departing now,” reports the New York Times, noting that he “was a crucial early supporter of Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016.”
  • However, according to Fox News and a U.S. official cited by Reuters, Branstad is going to join Trump’s reelection campaign. His son is already working for the campaign.

Branstad first met Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 in 1985, when the American was serving his first term as the governor of Iowa, and the man who is now China’s leader was an official from Hebei Province leading an official delegation to its “sister state.”  

  • The long relationship led to speculation that Branstad would have special access to Xi, or be in a position to act as ballast in the bilateral relationship. Even the Communist Party’s house newspaper, the People’s Daily, called (in Chinese) Branstad “an old friend of the Chinese people.”
  • Whether this was true or not, the relationship is now on the rocks, and there are precious few bilateral channels of communication that are still open. The “old friend” is going home.  

The last week has been tense

Diplomatic tensions between China and the U.S. have been high for many months, and have ratcheted up in recent days:

Why now?

Two of the most unpleasant jobs in the world right now have got to be the U.S. ambassador in Beijing and the Chinese ambassador in Washington, D.C. So perhaps Branstad has just had enough.

But the style of the announcement — going public before informing Beijing — and its result — yet another channel of communication between the two countries shut down — seem of a piece with the State Department’s recent treatment of China. So perhaps the move is part of a grand plan for decoupling being cooked up by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.