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The top U.S. diplomat in Beijing on why he supports Trump’s China policy

How the United States deals with China over the next decade will have major consequences for both countries -- and the world. Terry Branstad, the top American diplomat in Beijing, was an early supporter of President Trump and among his first diplomatic choices. Now he’s preparing to leave his post. Branstad joins Nick Schifrin to discuss why he sees the administration’s China policy as a success.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One topic that is likely to come up in tonight in the debate is China. How the U.S. deals with Beijing over the next decade will have major consequences for the world.

    Here now is Nick Schifrin with the United States' top diplomat in China as he prepares to leave his post.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, one of the Trump administration's signature foreign policies has been what it calls confronting China over technology, trade in the South China Sea and Hong Kong.

    And from the beginning, the administration's man in Beijing has been Terry Branstad. He's the former six-term Republican governor of Iowa. He campaigned for candidate Trump in 2016 and was one of the president's first ambassador choices. He's now stepping down to return to the U.S.

    And he joins me from Beijing.

    Ambassador Branstad, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    When President Trump chose you to become ambassador, Beijing called you — quote — "an old friend" of the Chinese people.

    As you leave, bilateral tensions have increased, and the nationalist tabloid Global Times called your tenure embarrassing.

    What changed?

  • Terry Branstad:

    Well, first of all, obviously, that's communist propaganda.

    I have represented the United States of America, and some of the leaders here have not been happy with our policies. But I'm proud of the progress we have made. We have achieved the phase one trade agreement to get us more fairness and reciprocity and address issues like protecting intellectual property rights and preventing the involuntary taking of technology.

    We have also addressed the fentanyl issue, in which China has made all of fentanyl and its derivatives controlled substances. And I believe that is saving lives in America, and we're seeing more cooperation in that area.

    In the past, we were hopeful that China was going to change and become more democratic. It's not happened. And, consequently, we want to make sure that the ambassadors and the diplomats here in China and our media are treated the same way that the Chinese are in America.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to get to some of those specifics in a second.

    But let's talk about the overall relationship right now, Beijing and Washington cutting back on cultural and academic exchanges, restricting access for diplomats, targeting each other's media outlets. And there's even large-scale military exercises that are close to each other.

    Do you fear that there is an increase in conflicts going forward?

  • Terry Branstad:

    I know they want to be a rich and powerful country, but they want to be respected.

    And the only way that China is going to be respected is if they play by the rules. And one of the big disappointments in the world is the cover-up of the virus that started in Wuhan, and the fact that the rest of the world was not warned about this.

    And the consequence were, it became a worldwide pandemic. It's cost a lot of lives. And it's really had a big impact on the economies of countries throughout the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You rightly point out some of the doctors in hospitals in Wuhan were silenced by hospital administrators and local officials, and that both local officials in Wuhan and Beijing restricted some information in those early days.

    But, by January 20, Xi Jinping said publicly to the country that they should help the world talk about COVID-19, and Beijing talked about how COVID was human-to-human transmission at that point.

    And yet it took President Trump months to acknowledge some of those points. So, why do you blame Beijing for everything that happened with COVID since January?

  • Terry Branstad:

    Well, it started in China.

    And had they really acknowledged the reality early on in December and January, something could have been done. And then, of course, what happened is, a lot of the virus was spread from people that went to a big event in Wuhan for the Chinese new year, and then went to Europe and other parts of the world and spread the virus.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about trade.

    You have said that the phase one trade deal is what you're most proud of during your tenure as ambassador, but has Beijing lived up to its promises in the phase one trade deal?

    There are critics. And these critics say that there's no enforceability in the trade deal. And they point out the Department of Justice continuously unveils examples of Chinese espionage, and that Chinese behavior has not changed.

  • Terry Branstad:

    Well, first of all, there are penalties for failing to abide by the trade agreement.

    And I'm complimentary of the Justice Department for going after the Chinese. I think, for too long, we were naive about some of the espionage that was going on in research at our universities and different places. And, consequently, this administration has taken that very seriously and is going after enforcing it.

    So, I think that's a good thing. I don't agree with those that want to decouple with China. This is a huge market. And American products are very well liked by the Chinese consumers. And we need to reduce the trade deficit and increase our exports, not just of agriculture products, but of manufactured goods and energy as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Your son Eric is an adviser to the Trump campaign. You have said that you're willing to campaign for the president.

    But former Vice President Biden has vowed to be tough on China. Do you believe that a President Biden would stop the policies toward China that you believe have been successful under the Trump administration?

  • Terry Branstad:

    Well, if you look at his track record on foreign policy, it's a disaster.

    Biden has been on basically the wrong side of most of these things throughout the long period of time. I want to go back and share with the people in Iowa and throughout the United States why the changes, insisting on fairness and reciprocity, that President Trump has put in place.

    So, I'm proud to go back and support my friends, many of whom I helped recruit, that are up for election or reelection this year.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Terry Branstad, thank you very much.

  • Terry Branstad:

    Thank you.

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