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US Ambassador Touts Trump's Tough Stance on China, Blames Strained Ties on COVID Cover-Up

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The departing U.S. ambassador on Tuesday defended the Trump administration’s tough approach to China, blaming the escalating tensions between the countries on China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Terry Branstad, the longtime Iowa governor chosen by President Donald Trump to be the U.S. envoy to China, agreed that China has generally reacted to pressure by responding in kind, from closing consulates to imposing tariffs.

“The unfortunate thing is we’re trying to rebalance the relationship so we have fairness and reciprocity, but every time we do something, they keep it unbalanced,” he said in an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Branstad is returning to Iowa this weekend after three years as ambassador in Beijing. No successor has yet been named.

The Trump administration has dialed up pressure on China this year.

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It imposed new restrictions on Chinese diplomats and journalists, closed the Chinese consulate in Houston and criticized China on multiple fronts, from its handling of the coronavirus to its human rights record in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, home to largely Muslim ethnic groups.

China has rebuked the U.S. and taken tit-for-tat measures, including the closing of a U.S. consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that ties face their gravest challenge since the normalization of relations in 1979.

Branstad downplayed such fears, noting the relationship has weathered ups and downs in the past.

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He cited the so-called phase one trade deal, reached in January, and China’s agreement to list fentanyl as a controlled substance as positive developments. The U.S. has been trying to reduce the flow of the opioid from China.

“I think in the area of trade, we’ve got their attention and we’re making progress,” Branstad said. “I hope we can in the other [areas], in terms of the treatment of our media, the treatment of our diplomats.”

Branstad, who traveled widely in China during his stint, complained about needing to get government approval for every visit. He asked to go to Tibet three times before his visit last year.

Once there, though, he said he had open exchanges with students and teachers. Elsewhere, his experience varied.

The former Iowa governor has longstanding ties to Chinese leader Xi Jinping and was seen as someone who could soothe relations.

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He came to China as governor in 1984 after signing a sister-state agreement with Hebei province, and he met Xi the following year when the then-county level Communist Party official visited Iowa as head of an agricultural delegation.

While the U.S.-China relationship has become fraught, Branstad maintained that such long-term ties remain valuable.

He said he has met Xi several times since arriving in China in 2017, including a private family dinner in early 2018 that included Branstad’s daughter and grandchildren.

“I think he still has very good feelings about me and about Iowa and the way we treated him,” Branstad said.

Branstad blamed the coronavirus for souring the relationship, saying Xi had assured Trump the outbreak was under control when in fact it wasn’t. China has been criticized for covering up the crisis in its initial days.

“Obviously, that’s had a lot to do with, I think, the president’s feelings towards China,” Branstad said.

Branstad expects to campaign in Iowa for Trump and other Republican candidates. He said he would focus in part on what the administration has done in China and the need to maintain a relationship but insist on fairness.

“I’ve never lost an election and it’s still in my blood,” the 73-year-old political veteran said.

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