RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made China a regular target of his rhetorical attacks. So it's safe to say the next U.S. ambassador to China is going to have to manage a diplomatic relationship that is even more complicated than it usually is. If confirmed, that job will go to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.
In a moment, we'll hear about the kinds of challenges Branstad will face as ambassador to China. But first, Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports on why Trump picked the Midwestern governor for this particular job.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Two days before the election, Donald Trump stood before a large crowd in Sioux City, Iowa, and he called up on stage the longest-serving governor in U.S. history.
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DONALD TRUMP: I think there's nobody that knows more about trade than him. He's one of the ones in dealing with China - well, you would be your - you would be our prime candidate to take care of China. He is...
MASTERS: What Trump was alluding to was Terry Branstad and Iowa's long relationship with China. While sitting in his Capitol office in Des Moines, Branstad says the state exports billions of dollars' worth of pork, soybeans and other goods to China.
TERRY BRANSTAD: I had told Donald Trump on several occasions, don't say anything bad about China when you're in Iowa. We have a great relationship there.
MASTERS: Part of that great relationship can be traced back to the 1980s, when Branstad had his first run as Iowa's governor. In 1985, Xi Jinping came to the U.S. as a young agriculture officer from Hebei province.
SARAH LANDE: Then these were some of their foreign visits. They went to Monsanto.
MASTERS: Sarah Lande points to photos as she walks through what's now dubbed the Friendship House in Muscatine, Iowa. It's an unassuming 1960s, brick, split-foyer house where the Chinese president stayed back in 1985 in the bedroom of a young "Star Trek" fan. Two locals have purchased the house and hope to make it a tourist attraction. Lande was part of the group that organized that first trip. She says he'd read Mark Twain and fell in love with the Mississippi River, which borders Muscatine.
LANDE: And we found him jolly, a great smile.
MASTERS: Lande says Xi Jinping did not get a royal treatment in Iowa.
LANDE: One of the reasons we had homestays, everybody was a volunteer - people in the home, the potluck dinner - and I think that really appealed to him.
MASTERS: Since then, Xi Jinping and Terry Branstad have visited each other over the years. Branstad's office at the Capitol in Des Moines has lots of tokens of their friendship on display, including some artwork.
BRANSTAD: This is a gift from Xi Jingping when he was here for the old friends' reunion.
MASTERS: Branstad says he knows promoting Iowa to China is a much different job than being an ambassador between the two largest economies in the world. He's hopeful he can find areas of cooperation. Branstad was a big supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal backed by President Obama. Donald Trump has called it a disaster and says he'll back out of it. Branstad points out that China was not included in the TPP.
BRANSTAD: Maybe it can be renegotiated, and China could be included. That's something I think should be looked at, or the other thing would be to do bilateral agreements like we've done with South Korea.
MASTERS: While Branstad is hopeful his decades-long friendship with the Chinese president will be a benefit for the country, he acknowledges he has a lot to learn about foreign policy. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: And those lessons can't begin soon enough. Never have relations between the U.S. and China have been more strained or more crucial.
I'm NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting from Beijing. The most recent spat began in early December, started by Branstad's new boss. He had just taken a call from the president of Taiwan, an island with its own government, but an island Beijing considers part of China. China was not happy. But then five days later, things got a little better.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Chinese).
SCHMITZ: Trump appointed Terry Branstad as the next ambassador to China, prompting the hint of a smile from a spokesman for the foreign ministry as he called the Iowa governor an old friend of China.
KEN JARRETT: Now this is a common quote in China which signifies that this is somebody that China feels that they can trust.
SCHMITZ: That's Ken Jarett, former China diplomat who now heads the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. Jarrett says Branstad's 30-year relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping is important. A more important relationship, though, will be the one Branstad has with his new boss. And Jarrett says the challenge will be interpreting Trump to the Chinese.
JARRETT: Now, everyone is still in the stage of trying to understand how to interpret his tweets. Now, this is not easy for Americans to do. It's even more difficult for Chinese to do.
SCHMITZ: Branstad will also have to navigate what has become a complicated frenemy kind of relationship. Beijing-based lawyer Lester Ross.
LESTER ROSS: Well, he's going to have, of course, major challenges because the relations between our two countries right now are somewhat tense.
SCHMITZ: Diplomatic landmines abound. China's encroachment into the South and East China Seas, cybersecurity, North Korean nukes and now the Chinese economy is in trouble. The Communist Party is tightening control over its people, their access to information and exposure to foreign influence.
ROSS: China has absorbed and embarked upon a fiercely security-conscious policy mix under which foreign influence is regarded suspiciously, no matter where it emanates from, no matter what its contents are.
SCHMITZ: In short, there may never have been a more challenging time to be U.S. ambassador to China. And, says Peking University professor Zha Daojiong, the role of the U.S. ambassador has never been more confusing to China's leadership.
ZHA DAOJIONG: What kind of role is he here to play? Is he here to represent a voice from the administration, or is he going to be functioning as a bridge of sorts?
SCHMITZ: Ambassadors to China in the '80s and '90s were descendants of missionaries in Asia, so-called old China hands, with the ability to see China through the lens of history, philosophy and civilization. Then around the turn of the century, a more politically savvy batch of ambassadors arrived with close connections to Washington. Zha misses the old days.
ZHA: Time has come for the ambassadorship to function as a bridge between the different voices of both societies.
SCHMITZ: Lester Ross agrees. When I ask him for advice for Branstad, the 30-year China veteran doesn't skip a beat.
ROSS: Be prepared to work hard. Be prepared to travel the country and to accommodate and welcome Chinese cultural influence. Try to make a broad, popular impression on the Chinese people.
SCHMITZ: In other words, get off Twitter. It won't be hard in China, where it's blocked. And be the face of America to the Chinese people. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Beijing.
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