Branstad in China

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, right, speaks with China Consul General Hong Lei before a Happy Chinese New Year concert Feb. 1, 2017, at Calvary Church in Muscatine.

JIM SLOSIAREK, Cedar Rapids gazette

Ever since Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was named as the Trump administration’s ambassador to China last year, farm organizations have talked about how useful it could be to have a Midwesterner and a person knowledgeable about agriculture as the U.S. voice in Beijing.

Iowa farm leaders have been especially excited about the possibilities.

Branstad has been in China since last spring, and many of those leaders say it is still too soon to point toward concrete trade deals or changes, but they remain excited about the influence his appointment has.

“Everyone is open-eyed about this,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, stressing that there are no guarantees of results just because a former Iowa governor is the ambassador. “It’s not a piece of cake. But it sure is nice having the ambassador there.”

Northey and leaders of some of Iowa’s agricultural commodity groups say it is possible his presence in China could help both Iowa and farmers in several different ways.

One immediate impact is that Branstad’s presence emphasizes Chinese president Xi Jinping’s relationship both with Branstad and with Iowa. Xi visited Muscatine, Iowa, in the 1980s when Branstad was a young governor and Xi was a young Chinese official. That long-ago visit gave him some connections in Iowa and led to a return visit to the state in 2012, when he held a much higher post in Chinese government.

That connection gives Branstad and Iowa some additional respect in China, Northey says. The fact that Branstad already had a relationship with Xi is helpful.

In part because of that relationship, it was clear during an all-Iowa trade mission to China in July 2017 that members of the delegation appeared to “hit a notch above their rank,” Northey says.

What that meant on the ground was that if a member of the Iowa delegation expected to meet an official of a certain level, they might instead get the chance to meet with someone one level higher in the government. This is not guaranteed to continue, but it appears to be happening at the moment, Northey says.

Branstad’s presence is also important in part because the Trump presidential administration has openly questioned current U.S. trade pacts, and many countries are concerned about what is generally seen as an anti-trade attitude.

Branstad has proven over the years that he is a supporter of free trade, and his presence in China is likely helpful on that issue, says Matt Deppe, CEO of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.

“It’s like pairing a good wine with a steak,” he says of putting Branstad into the mix.

Having a trade proponent in China also helps calm the business community in the United States, says Pat McGonegle, CEO of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

And it is worth noting that the Trump administration still has not named an ambassador to South Korea, says Grant Kimberley, a farmer who serves as director of market development with the Iowa Soybean Association and executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board. That means Branstad is an even bigger voice for the administration across north Asia at a time when tensions are high regarding North Korea.

Kimberley says it is important to remember Branstad doesn’t just represent the United States in China. He helps inform the state department and the Trump White House about issues related to China. That should be helpful when working on trade issues, Kimberley says.

“I can’t help but have a good feeling about this (having Branstad in China),” says Mark Recker, a farmer from Fayette County who serves as president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

The agricultural leaders say there are a number of specific trade issues with China, ranging from beef shipments to ethanol and distillers grains. And they say China, as one of the largest economies in the world, will remain an important market.

Of course, they add, Mexico and Canada remain the closest and most important markets for many U.S. agricultural products, and with the NAFTA renegotiation under way, that shouldn’t be forgotten in the discussion about China.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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