In spite of all the economic and strategic differences between the US and China, personal relationships play an important role in bilateral relations between Washington DC and Beijing.
Trump’s Ambassador to China
One of the first appointments made by US President Donald Trump was that of Terry Branstad as US Ambassador to China. The key reason was Branstad’s personal rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This began in 1985, when Branstad was Governor of Iowa, while Xi Jinping an official from Hebei was visiting Iowa. In 2011, Branstad visited Beijing, and met with Xi at the Great Hall of the People. In February 2012, when he was vice-president, Xi stopped in Muscatine, Iowa, where he met not just with Branstad but with big industrialists and farmers from the states.
The US President, commenting on the reason for appointing Branstad, stated:
Governor Branstad’s decades of experience in public service and long- time relationship with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders make him the ideal choice to serve as America’s ambassador to China.
During US President’s China visit in November 2017, Branstad, who shares a good rapport with Trump, did the groundwork for the visit. While in recent weeks tensions between both countries have escalated, with Trump imposing tariffs on Chinese goods worth $60 billion, the American president was delighted with the welcome he had received during his trip and had even told the Chinese President: “My feeling towards you is incredibly warm.”
It would be pertinent to point out that Trump’s decision to appoint Branstad as Ambassador to China (December 2016) came as a relief to the Chinese, given the fact that the US President took Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing Wen’s phone call, much to the chagrin of Beijing (since this went against established US policy).
If one were to look beyond the role of personal relationships in the very complex but important Beijing-Washington relationship, China lays a lot of emphasis on experience (educational, professional) in the US. If one were to examine the credentials of some of the top officials in Xi Jinping’s administration, US education as well as experience in dealing with economic issues pertaining to the US, has played a key role in some of the Chinese President’s appointments.
For instance, Liu He, whom Xi Jinping has appointed as a Vice Premier for overseeing the economy and financial sector, is US educated. Liu, who speaks fluent English, obtained a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University) in 1995. Apart from his in-depth understanding of the Chinese economy, Liu has also been involved in important discussions with US leaders.
Another significant appointment by Xi Jinping is that of Yi Gang, who has been named as Governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC). Yi obtained a business degree from the Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Illinois, before moving to Indiana University at Indianapolis as a professor in 1986. He taught later at the Peking University in Beijing, before moving to the PBOC in 1997.
While economic and strategic issues are too complex to be driven by personal relationships or chemistry (though Trump seems to be a keen believer in personal chemistry given the emphasis he lays on individual ties) alone, an in-depth understanding of the culture, politics, and economics of one’s interloctutors is especially handy. Given the current tensions between both countries over tariffs, this dynamic may prove to be especially useful.