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Donald Trump’s ambassador to China has a 30-year friendship with Xi Jinping

Donald Trump’s chosen ambassador to Beijing, one of the US’s most important foreign envoys, has just been confirmed, four months into his presidency. During that time, China’s hardly been on the backburner—Trump hosted China’s president Xi Jinping at his private Florida resort, and announced a 10-point agreement (paywall) with China on trade.

On May 22, the US Senate voted 82-15 to approve Iowa governor Terry Branstad, one of the US politicians most engaged with China at the highest levels of the Communist Party. Branstad will resign from his current post on May 24, and immediately be sworn in as the ambassador, making him one of the few new ambassadors in the Trump administration.

Branstad, who is 70 years old, has had a decades-long political career in the farming state of Iowa. In 1985, when Branstad was a first-term governor, a young Xi visited Iowa leading a government agricultural research delegation. The pair met for the first time then, and remained in contact. In 2012, as a vice president, Xi returned to Muscatine, a small town in eastern Iowa, to meet his host family from the 1985 trip.

After announcing his choice in December, before he even took office, Trump said in a statement that Branstad’s decades of experience in public service and long-standing relationship with Xi make him the ideal pick for China. China’s foreign ministry welcomed the decision by calling Branstad “an old friend of the Chinese people,” a great compliment that he shares with a limited number of American politicians including Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. Xi has also called Branstad an “old friend” of his own.

Despite his close ties with China, Branstad assured lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that he would take a firm stand with China on issues from North Korea to trade to human rights.

“As an old friend, I’d tell him where he’s falling short,” Branstad said earlier this month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He added he won’t hesitate to invite Chinese dissidents and activists to the US embassy in Beijing.

Meanwhile, last week Trump’s pick for ambassador to Japan cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But so far, there still appears to be no nominee for ambassador to South Korea.

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