BEIJING — The Iowan who has the ear of the leaders of two world superpowers stepped up to a lectern inside a crowded living room of his sumptuous new home — half a world away from where he had spent most of his 70 years.
On a late September evening, Terry Branstad, Iowa's longest-serving governor and the United States' newest ambassador to China, addressed an elite cocktail-party crowd of more than 100 Chinese dignitaries, expats and visiting Americans.
“Welcome to the governor’s … no,” he interrupted himself with a chuckle and shake of his head. “I kind of fell back into my old habits there.
“Welcome to the ambassador’s residence in Beijing, China.”
Branstad's mild misstep was a reminder of the improbable path that took him from a marathon tenure as the folksy governor of a landlocked Midwestern state to his current and much more exotic job as America's chief liaison to the most populous country on the planet.
He now confronts formidable issues that are playing out on a world stage and will capture global media attention during President Donald Trump's scheduled visit here Wednesday to Friday. Trump's tour of five Asian nations will be his longest foreign trip since taking office.
In his new job, Branstad must deal with a resurgent China that already is the world's No. 2 economy and has designs on surpassing the U.S., while exerting its increasing leverage to assume a greater leadership role in global affairs.
He must also apply pressure to a Chinese leadership reluctant to more aggressively rein in North Korea, its unpredictable neighbor and fellow communist country.
That means ultimately persuading President Xi Jinping to shift direction. Xi has been consolidating his power and emerged from his Communist party’s 19th National Congress widely acknowledged as China’s most powerful ruler since founding father Mao Zedong.
It is with Xi that Branstand's greatest influence may lie. The two have been friends since Xi toured Iowa's fertile farmland at Branstad's side more than three decades ago.
Branstad's established relationship with Xi and his fervent belief in the "importance of the U.S.-China relationship" give him "the potential to be a very trusted and balanced voice” in Beijing, said Missouri first lady Sheena Greitens, an expert on China, Korea and Asia who helped prep Branstad for his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing and who attended the embassy bash.
INTERACTIVE MAP:See the many places Iowa culture influences Chinese culture
Branstad's Trump, Xi connection
Trump's top priorities while he is in China, Branstad said, are addressing the threat from North Korea and reducing America's trade imbalance with China.
The trip will give Branstad an up-close opportunity to provide a bridge between two world leaders with often sharply different agendas.
As Iowa governor, Branstad and his family supported Trump in 2016’s slugfest of a presidential campaign. Branstad even issued an 11th-hour plea during the Iowa caucuses for then-favorite Sen. Ted Cruz to be defeated.
Trump eventually sealed his hostile takeover of the national Republican Party and steamrolled back through Iowa as a nominee with an enthusiastic Branstad stamp of approval.
Meanwhile, it was just five years ago that the world at large realized that Branstad was a rare “old friend” to Xi.
In 2012, the two toasted each other beneath the golden dome of the Iowa State Capitol at a lavish state dinner — 27 years after the two first met when Xi was a young Communist official touring Iowa farms, factories and living rooms as his introduction to America.
As Xi was rapidly climbing the Communist ladder of power, Branstad was steadily plowing familiar political ground as the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, racking up 8,169 days in office.
Until late 2016, Branstad’s political ambition never publicly strayed to Washington, D.C., let alone all the way here.
The only Mandarin he speaks is hello, ni hao, and thank you, xie xie. (But he has at his disposal veteran embassy staffer James Brown, who has interpreted for every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.)
Nobody saw that the most significant development of his long political career would be neither the 1980s farm crisis nor any other agricultural or domestic trend, but the rising influence of China in the Pacific.
Interactive map: Iowa in the Heart China
Staring down the 'biggest threat'
Striking a balance in Asia is widely craved at a time when North Korean is test-launching ballistic missiles over Japan and taunts the U.S. with an “immense volley of nuclear fire.”
Branstad himself continually refers to North Korea as “the biggest threat to humankind.”
An air purifier churns away in every corner of the ambassador’s Beijing living room to combat the capital city’s notorious smog. But clearing the air of the decades-old standoff with North Korea has gotten only tougher since Trump took office.
The living room is the same space where Branstad’s immediate boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, spoke in late September of diplomatic channels still open for negotiating with Kim Jong Un's regime.
That famously inspired a flurry of Trump tweets that seemingly undermined the authority of his secretary of state.
I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man...
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
...Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
The president tweeted that the former ExxonMobil chief was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
There's no shortage of state-sponsored commentary in China to the contrary, emphasizing a cool globalist tone of restraint.
Political analyst Xu Qinduo with China Radio International, in a TV interview, criticized the escalating rhetoric out of Washington and Trump’s promise to “totally destroy” North Korea if provoked: “This kind of talk is more like North Korean style.”
Even as governor, Branstad pushed to tame candidate Trump's campaign rhetoric on China as a top killer of American jobs and manufacturing.
"I used to tell Donald Trump,” Branstad said to a roomful of fellow Iowans in Beijing, “don’t say anything bad about China.”
As ambassador, Branstad cites recent diplomatic progress with coaxing China to help apply more pressure to North Korea.
“The Chinese have come a long way in just the last several months since I've been here in supporting stronger resolutions,” he said.
Branstad on Aug. 17 accompanied Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to meet with Xi. The general also met with the People’s Liberation Army near the North Korean border — yet another hopeful sign in Branstad's eyes.
“Here is the United States and the People's Republic of China working together,” Branstad said, “and we have both indicated that we want to see a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Yet almost as Branstad uttered those words, Dunford was back in Washington, D.C., telling the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.”
As American leadership wrangles with its modern relationship with China as more ally or rival, the Chinese people mostly are accustomed to the everyday backdrop of North Korean nukes.
Donald Jia, 35, is deputy section chief for the foreign and overseas Chinese affairs office in the city of Taizhou in Jiangsu Province. He characterized both a geographic and demographic split in attitudes to North Korea.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese people closer to the border worry more — perhaps most of all about the potential for a nuclear accident. The glut of Chinese people in orbit of the major southern cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou have the luxury of feeling farther removed from the Trump-Un feud.
More interesting is the generational divide: Older Chinese people may be more prone to support North Korea out of habit, Jia said.
But many younger residents are likelier to think that the time may have come to back away from a neighboring regime that at this point is only fomenting instability.
"Despite China's support, they don't listen," Jia said.
China watchers took note that Un did not launch any missiles to vex Xi during the recent 19th Party Congress.
China: Both a benefit and a challenge
The first thing you tend to notice about the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is the line of visa applicants that snakes down the block.
It's an indication of the robust level of travel between the U.S. and China for business, education and tourism.
Some 2,300 employees (both Americans and locally hired personnel) work in the complex of six buildings, spread across more than 20 agencies.
Tim Stratford, a partner with the Covington law firm in Beijing, worked 30 years ago in the embassy. In 1991 he sent a cable back to Washington, D.C., when China still was more of a “curiosity” on the world stage.
Stratford warned his bosses: The U.S. trade deficit with China that year would reach $8 billion. Within a few short years he worried it could nearly double to $15 billion. The annual deficit now hovers around $350 billion.
"We got the trend right," Stratford said, "but I think it would’ve been hard to anticipate how large the relationship has grown and how beneficial and also how challenging it’s been.”
Branstad is tackling the challenges of his new job with an approach similar to his style as governor: old-fashioned retail politics.
Branstad already has promised to travel to each of China's 23 provinces every year, starting with Iowa's sister state of Hebei, echoing his annual tour of Iowa's 99 counties.
"When you say we're going to go to every province it says … you care about the whole country, and all the people, and you want to learn about the huge diversity that's here," he said.
"From the Himalayas to Jilin to Guangzhou to Chengdu where the pandas are. Shanghai, which is the biggest port in the world. Beijing, the capital city. And I've just scratched the surface of all the places there are to see and do here."
Colm Rafferty, who has spent 15 years living and working in Beijing, is Iowa-based Vermeer Corp.'s vice president in the Asia Pacific and a well-connected vice chair for the American Chamber of Commerce in China. He sees Branstad's travels as more than good public relations.
He calls Branstad a "constructive engager" whose retail politicking is part of a renewed pro-business push that could lead to new deals as he scours the terrain.
"How do we reduce the deficit?" Rafferty said. "How do we increase U.S. jobs in a way that's constructive for both countries? You could approach the same issue in a destructive way or you could approach it in a very constructive way, and I think we've got an ambassador who has experience in looking at how we approach this in a very constructive way."
Tumultuous era at embassy, State Department
Branstad's retail politics in China extends into the embassy itself and his own staff: When not traveling, he sits with a rotating cast of staffers in the cafeteria for lunch and tries to get to know them.
The ambassador is surrounded by many career diplomats new to their roles in what has been described as a tumultuous era for a depleted and demoralized State Department.
Last month Branstad hired a fellow Iowan, Steven Churchill, a former member of the Iowa House of Representatives, as chief of staff.
Before Branstad even set foot in Beijing as ambassador, there was staff drama.
David Rank, a career diplomat who was bridging the gap between Branstad and his predecessor, Max Baucus, resigned in June in protest over Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, which was forged two years ago among 196 nations.
Rank wrote that many of his colleagues whom he left behind also shared his worry over what he called “the unraveling of 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy.”
In a phone interview last summer, Rank cited America's pullback from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a problem. The trade pact, he said, was “an important element in cementing us, our role as an Asia-Pacific power.”
In recent years Rank watched China storm into growing technology sectors such as aerospace engineering and alternative energy.
“I worry that in another decade we’ll look back and find that if we don’t address those, we’ll have the same problems in semiconductors that we have today in steel.”
Interactive map: Iowa in the Heart China
Social-media diplomacy with mooncakes
Even in today's China, an ambassador's post isn't all about white-knuckle brinkmanship over trade and nuclear weapons. There's also adjusting to life here and embracing the softer sides of statecraft.
The ambassador’s residence is the site of the former U.S. Embassy, tucked into a leafy northeast Beijing neighborhood near Ritan Park where locals play pingpong, scale a giant climbing wall and practice tai chi.
Chris Branstad, the ambassador's wife of 45 years, got a license and has dared to drive on Beijing's notoriously congested roads.
"It's really not even so much the driving," she said. "It’s the knowing how to get somewhere. I'm a little technologically challenged, so I need to get a GPS or something.”
The Branstads are finding ways to adapt their most important daily rituals to the Chinese culture. They attend Catholic Mass at the Canadian Embassy. (China has Catholic churches but doesn’t recognize the pope’s authority to appoint bishops, so the Canadian Embassy draws a faithful flock of Catholic expats.)
The Branstads' daughter Allison and her family — husband, Jerry Costa, and their daughters, Sophia, 7, and Stella, 4 — moved to Beijing to join the adventure. Allison teaches at an international school.
The family participated in a video message to spread on WeChat, wishing all 1.4 billion Chinese a happy Mid-Autumn Festival, the nation's weeklong fall holiday.
The Branstads circled a small table in front of the cameras to taste an array of mooncakes, a seasonal Chinese pastry that can be filled with a variety of sweet or savory ingredients.
Sophia and Stella sat on their grandparents’ laps as perhaps the most disarming tools of diplomacy.
'Liberal reformer' gives way to crackdown
Similar to tasting mooncakes, Xi's visits to Iowa may have helped to soften his image in America with a folksy touch rare for Communist rulers.
Yet despite his connections to "Iowa nice" and a daughter who was educated in the U.S. at Harvard, Xi hasn't lived up to his potential as a "liberal reformer," said David Skidmore, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines, who spent much of his summer traveling and teaching in China.
Compared with a decade ago, China in many ways is more politically repressive. Five leading news organizations were blocked from even covering the recent party congress.
"He's backtracked," Skidmore said.
For his part, Branstad in his early days as ambassador still sees the glass half full. And, true to his domestic pedigree, he tends to focus on Xi's progressive side and the economic promise of U.S.-China harmony.
Xi's administration has arrested or disciplined hundreds of thousands of Communist party officials in a far-ranging anti-corruption drive that has been simultaneously praised for rooting out entrenched bribery while also helping Xi to consolidate his power.
“What he's done to crack down on corruption and to address some of the problems with air quality and things like that I think have been popular with the citizens here in China,” Branstad said.
The question remains: How much influence will Branstad be able to wield with his "old friend" as two world superpowers see their interests collide?
"I don't think the U.S. has a clear China policy right now," Skidmore said. And Trump's withdrawal from such multilateral deals as TPP leaves a void for our allies in the region.
China, meanwhile, does have a strategy, which Skidmore said is "working to build a sphere of influence" largely based on economic dependence.
What's at stake is how much that sphere will shape the future.