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US ambassador to China steps aside amid heightening tension

Ambassador Terry Branstad has stepped aside after nearly four years in Beijing – Ng Han Guan /AP

The US ambassador to China Terry Branstad is stepping down after three years in the post during an exceptionally tense period in the US-China relationship. 

The reason for Mr Branstad’s departure is not immediately clear, and leaves the US without an envoy in China at least through the presidential election in November after new political appointees could be named.

The deputy chief of mission, Robert Forden, will become acting head in the interim.

The US-China relationship continues to hit new lows with Washington and Beijing sparring over coronavirus, human rights, trade, technology, espionage, and the treatment of journalists.

“We are rebalancing the US-China relationship so that it is fair and reciprocal and can fuel positive growth in both countries,” Mr Branstad said in a statement about his departure. 

Mr Branstad will leave Beijing in early October, and is expected to return to his home state of Iowa, the US State Department said in a statement on Monday. 

Mr Branstad was one of US President Donald Trump’s first ambassadorial appointees shortly after winning the 2016 election. 

At the time, Mr Trump indicated that Mr Branstad was chosen for his experience in public policy and long-term relationship with Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, who he had known since 1985 through bilateral government exchanges. 

Indeed Mr Branstad was welcomed by Beijing as “an old friend of China” upon arrival. 

But during his tenure, the US and China have engaged in an ongoing trade war that has resulted in billions of dollars of tariffs for both sides. Mr Trump’s administration has also banned Chinese firm Huawei from US telecoms infrastructure, and blocked the company from receiving American technology components. 

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In July, the US forced China’s consulate in Houston to shutter over allegations that it was at the centre of a vast espionage ring targeting military and commercial secrets. Beijing then shuttered the US consulate in Chengdu in response. 

US officials also continue to be vocal about China’s cover-up of the coronavirus pandemic, seeding further tension in the relationship. 

In yet another sign of how far relations have deteriorated, a Chinese state newspaper refused to publish an op-ed by Mr Branstad last week about how Beijing had “exploited” US openness. 

Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily rejected the piece, saying it was “full of loopholes and seriously inconsistent with the facts.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded by accusing Beijing of “hypocrisy,” and its leaders for not being mature enough to allow Western diplomats to speak directly to the general Chinese public. 

Mr Pompeo first announced Mr Branstad’s departure via a series of posts on Twitter, saying his leadership would have “lasting, positive effects on US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come,” contributing to a relationship that is “results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair.” 

“I thank Ambassador Terry Branstad for his more than three years of service to the American people as US Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China,” wrote Mr Pompeo. 

China’s foreign ministry said Monday that it had not yet received notice that the US ambassador would be leaving. 


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