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China's president and Trump's ambassador pick go way back

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, right, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping before a forum for U.S. and Chinese governors September 22, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.
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Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, right, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping before a forum for U.S. and Chinese governors September 22, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.

After a campaign filled with tough talk on China and some post-election ruffling of diplomatic feathers, President-elect Donald Trump Wednesday tapped Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to become his ambassador to that nation — a Midwestern Republican who also happens to have a surprising and long-running relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Iowa formed a sister state state relationship with the Hebei province of China in 1983, and the friendship between Xi and Branstad dates back to 1985, when Branstad was serving his first term as governor and Xi was a lower level agricultural official with the Communist Party. At the time, Xi, part of a Chinese delegation visiting the U.S., was looking into farming technology. He even stayed with a local family, Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak in Muscantine, Iowa.

"He was very calm, laid back and polite," recalled Eleanor Dvorchak, 76, who now lives in Tampa, Florida. She said Xi, who spoke little English, slept in her teenage son's room, which was wallpapered in a Star Wars print and decorated with model plastic airplanes. They also exchanged gifts, with the now-Chinese president giving her strong wine from his country that made her go "Woo!" She gave him Iowa popcorn.

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Dvorchak said picking Iowa's governor to go to China seemed natural. "The governor has had years of experience with trade with China," she said.

Since that trip to Iowa, Branstad and Xi have met on several occasions and frequently call each other "friend." Iowa and China's relationship may seem strange, but China is a top recipient of Iowa exports, receiving $1.1 billion in goods in 2015, behind only Canada and Mexico.

In 2011, Branstad met with then-Vice President Xi in Beijing as part of a three-nation trade mission in Asia. At the time, Branstad said Xi had a strong understanding of agriculture that would be helpful for the state to build economic ties with China.

Xi came back to Des Moines in February 2012 and was honored at a gala dinner. Branstad gave a toast and referenced the 1985 trip, "Many Iowans are pleased that a man that we befriended, those many years ago, has risen to such an important position of prominence," Branstad said.

Brandstad would travel to Beijing on a second trade mission just months later at Xi's invitation. He went on a third trade mission to Beijing in April 2013, just a month after Xi assumed the office of president, meeting with Xi face-to-face.

Trump suggested on the campaign trail that Branstad was at the front of his mind for the ambassador job. "You would be our prime candidate to take care of China," he said at a rally in Sioux City with the Iowa governor — a longtime Trump supporter — by his side.

The role will be especially important given Trump's tumultuous relationship with China. Trump has declared the country a currency manipulator, repeatedly called for punitive tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the U.S., and recently came under fierce criticism for breaking standard protocol and taking a call from Taiwan, which China doesn't recognize as a sovereign nation. (Taiwan also happens to be another one of Iowa's sister states, established in 1989.)

Picking Branstad "indicates that his team appreciates the need for clear communications directly with Xi," said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The U.S. needs as much direct access to Xi Jinping as possible …Gov. Brandstad met Xi in 1985 and has sustained that relationship. He will likely have access to Xi when necessary, and will be critical," Glaser added.