United States Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, will step down before the presidential election in November as strong tensions continue to assail the two countries.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday on Twitter that Branstad would leave office after three years, although he did not provide a reason for his departure.
The U.S. Embassy in China released a statement confirming Branstad’s decision to retire later on Monday, adding that he would be leaving for Iowa in early October. The statement did not provide further details regarding the timing of its decision.
“I am very proud of our work to secure the Phase One commercial agreement and deliver tangible results for our communities at home,” Branstad said in the statement. “We have made significant progress and we will not stop insisting.”
The announcement followed Pompeo’s accusations that Beijing was hypocritical for blocking the publication of an editorial written by Branstad in China’s largest state newspaper, the People’s Daily.
“The People’s Daily response once again exposes the Chinese Communist Party’s fear of free speech and serious intellectual debate, as well as Beijing’s hypocrisy when it complains about the lack of fair and mutual treatment in other countries,” Pompeo said in a statement Wednesday.
The editorial, published online by the State Department, blames China for the imbalances in relations between the countries.
Defending his position, the People’s Daily said the editorial was “full of loopholes and grossly inconsistent with the facts,” in a statement to the State Department.
The newspaper added that “the United States continues to intensify political repression and persecution against Chinese press institutions” and provided an example of a new visa restriction for Chinese journalists working in the United States – including at the headquarters of the United Nations – for a duration of three months.
On Monday, Pompeo praised Branstad for his tenure, calling him “the best person to represent the administration and to defend American interests and ideals in this important relationship.”
Branstad also played a pivotal role “to rebalance” US relations with China to make them more “mutual and fair,” Pompeo said.
Chinese officials did not immediately comment on Branstad’s departure. The country’s foreign ministry said on Monday it was not informed by the United States that the post would be vacated, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
The moment of Branstad’s departure comes at a time when relations between the two countries are at their worst in recent history, Steven Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University in London, told NBC News.
“Diplomacy is most needed when relations are difficult,” he said.
Last week, Beijing responded to the US decision to revoke visas for more than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers by calling the move “political persecution and racial discrimination”.
Especially ahead of the elections, briefly cutting Branstad’s time in Beijing is puzzling, Tsang said. Without the announcement of a replacement, you risk leaving the vacancy until after the inauguration.
While the reasons remain unclear, Tsang said it was unlikely to be caused by the “petty” editorial dispute. So far there is no indication that Beijing’s actions prompted the resignation.
“I suspect it all has to do with the election. I think it’s more a matter of Trump trying to create an impression and project on his basis that he is taking a hard line towards China,” Tsang said.