U.S. ambassador to China Branstad leaving post to help Trump campaign: U.S. official

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad speaks at an event to celebrate the re-introduction of American beef imports to China in Beijing, China June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Schiefelbein/Pool

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad will step down to work on President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, a U.S. official familiar with the matter said on Monday, departing Beijing at a time when the ties between the world’s top two economies are at their worst in decades.

Branstad, previously the longest-serving governor of Iowa, a state in the U.S. Farm Belt which helped Trump get elected in 2016, will leave China in early October, the U.S. embassy said in a statement.

“I thank Ambassador Terry Branstad for his more than three years of service to the American people as U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted. “Ambassador Branstad has contributed to rebalancing U.S.-China relations so that it is results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair.”

On Saturday, Trump hinted that Branstad might be joining the campaign. In a video posted on Twitter by Iowa senator Joni Ernst, Trump said Branstad would be coming home.

Branstad’s departure leaves the U.S. mission in Beijing without a confirmed ambassador at a time when the two countries are at loggerheads over everything from China’s new security law in Hong Kong to handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic and over territorial matters in the South China Sea.

That gap could last for months even if Trump is re-elected on Nov. 3. The Senate is only scheduled to be in session for about two more weeks before Election Day.

The Chinese foreign ministry has in the past described Branstad, who was instrumental in a so-called Phase One trade deal with China, as an “old friend of the Chinese people”. He first forged ties with President Xi Jinping several decades ago when Xi visited Iowa.

Last week, the United States and China traded attacks about who best understands press freedom after the official People’s Daily refused to publish an article by Branstad.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Patricia Zengerle, Rama Venkat and Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Grant McCool