WASHINGTON — Terry Branstad, the Iowa governor who has long embraced China as a market for his state’s pork and soybeans, was tapped Wednesday by President-elect Donald J. Trump to represent the United States in one of its most complex and increasingly contentious foreign relationships, as his ambassador to China.
In choosing Mr. Branstad, 70, an amiable politician who likes to describe President Xi Jinping of China as an “old friend,” Mr. Trump sounded a softer note alongside his unrelenting criticism of China’s economic relationship with the United States.
At an event on Wednesday morning at Cipriani restaurant in Manhattan to raise money for his inauguration, Mr. Trump told the audience that Mr. Branstad was a great choice. “He knows them all,” Mr. Trump said three separate times, according to an attendee. The selection was first reported by Bloomberg News.
China was quick to embrace the choice, even before Mr. Trump’s announcement. At a regular news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described Mr. Branstad as “an old friend of the Chinese people,” a phrase used to describe politicians trusted by Beijing. “We would welcome him playing a bigger role in promoting Sino-American relations,” Mr. Lu said of Mr. Branstad.
As ambassador, Mr. Branstad would find himself in the middle of an increasingly fraught relationship. Mr. Trump campaigned against China, repeatedly describing Chinese imports to the United States as a form of theft. He has proposed a steep tariff on those imports and promised to seek vigorous enforcement of trade rules, such as restrictions on state support for private companies.
CreditSteve Pope/Iowa Governor's Office, via Getty Images
The selection also comes just days after Mr. Trump spoke with Taiwan’s president by phone, prompting criticism from Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province. Mr. Trump then defended the call in a pair of Twitter messages criticizing China for its trade practices and provocative moves in the South China Sea.
Mr. Branstad is unusual in that he would have personal relationships with the leaders of both countries. Like many of the president-elect’s choices for senior positions in his administration, the governor was an early and unwavering supporter of Mr. Trump’s candidacy. One of the governor’s sons, Eric, ran the Trump campaign in Iowa. Another son, Marcus, has gone hunting with Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr.
Robert Hormats, a former under secretary of state in the Obama administration and now a vice chairman of Kissinger Associates, praised the choice.
“It’s a good pick because he knows President Xi, he can represent the heartland of the United States, which I think is very positive, and the fact that President Xi has been in his state twice is a very positive thing,” Mr. Hormats said Wednesday in China. “It creates a personal relationship that is very hard to replicate.”
Mr. Branstad, an Iowa native, graduated from the University of Iowa and then served briefly in the Army — yielding a priceless story about his role in arresting Jane Fonda for trespassing at Fort Bragg.
A lawyer by training, he entered the Iowa Legislature in 1973 and won election as governor in 1983. He served until 1999, then returned to office in 2011. In between, he was president of Des Moines University.
Mr. Branstad first met Mr. Xi in 1985, when as the first-term governor of Iowa he hosted a Chinese delegation that came to study American agricultural practices. The delegation included a 31-year-old official from rural Hebei Province, Mr. Xi.
Mr. Xi has fondly recalled that visit. He stayed in Muscatine, a small city in the eastern part of the state, where he was hosted by a couple and slept in their boys’ vacated bedroom, filled with “Star Trek” action figures. In early 2012, Mr. Xi briefly revisited Muscatine as vice president while preparing for his promotion to Communist Party leader later that year. He became the president in 2013.
“You can’t even imagine what a deep impression I had from my visit 27 years ago to Muscatine, because you were the first group of Americans that I came into contact with,” he told a group that included Mr. Branstad during his visit there. “My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America.”
During his second stay in the governor’s mansion, Mr. Branstad has aggressively courted China as a market for Iowa’s produce. He has said little in public about the tensions over territorial disputes, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and human rights restrictions in China that have shaped relations at the national level.
Iowa, like the rest of the United States, runs a trade deficit with China. The Chinese buy food from the United States, including Iowa’s corn and pork. But Americans buy far more from China — a range of goods that can be surveyed at Walmart.
The United States imported $483 billion in goods and services from China last year, while exporting $116 billion to China. The numbers are similar this year.
As governor, Mr. Branstad has sought to increase American exports without criticizing Chinese imports, the standard Republican Party line before Mr. Trump’s ascendence.
“I am excited to catch up with our old friend, Xi Jinping,” Mr. Branstad saidduring a trade mission to China in 2013, which included a meeting with the new Chinese president. “The value of this relationship cannot be overstated. As a result, Iowa is the preferred provider to feed China’s growing population and our agriculture exports to China continue to grow.”
Mr. Trump has taken a very different line on that relationship. He has said repeatedly that China is suppressing the value of its currency, an outdated accusation. In recent years, China has intervened in exchange markets to prop up the value of its currency, manipulation that tends to benefit American exporters.
If Mr. Branstad is confirmed by the Senate, Iowa would get its first female governor. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, 57, would take Mr. Branstad’s place.