US Ambassador to China Terry Branstad will step down ahead of the November presidential election as tensions remain high in the two countries.
Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo announced on Twitter on Monday that Branstad would be leaving the post after three years but gave no reason for his departure.
The U.S. embassy in China released a statement confirming Branstad’s decision to retire later Monday. He added that he will be leaving for Iowa in early October. The statement gave no further details at the time of his decision.
“I am most proud of our work to achieve the Phase One trade agreement and produce tangible results for our communities at home,” Branstad said in the statement. “We have made significant progress and we will not stop pushing for more.”
The announcement followed Pompeo’s allegations that Beijing was hypocritical for blocking the publication of a comment written by Branstad in China’s largest state newspaper, the People’s Daily.
“The People’s Daily response again reveals the Chinese Communist Party’s fear of freedom of 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 on Wednesday.
The statement, published online by the US State Department, blames China for imbalances in country relations.
The People’s Daily defended its position, telling the State Department in a statement that the comment was “full of loopholes and seriously inconsistent with facts”.
The newspaper added that “the United States is continuing to escalate the political repression and persecution of Chinese press institutions,” setting the example of a new permanent restriction on visas for Chinese journalists working in the United States, including the United Nations Headquarters from three months.
On Monday, Pompeo praised Branstad for his tenure, calling him “the best person to represent the government and defend American interests and ideals in this important relationship.”
Branstad also played an important role in “realigning” 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 State Department said Monday that the US had not announced the vacancy would be vacated, according to state-run newspaper Global Times.
The timing for 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 London’s SOAS University, told NBC News.
“Diplomacy is needed most when relationships are difficult,” he said.
Last week, Beijing hit back on a US decision to revoke visas for more than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers, calling the move “outright political persecution and racial discrimination.”
Shortening Branstad’s time in Beijing is especially confusing before the elections, said Tsang. If no replacement is announced, there is a risk that the position will remain vacant until after the inauguration.
While the reasons remain unclear, Tsang said it was unlikely that this was triggered by the “little” dispute over the Op-ed. So far, there is no indication that it was Beijing’s actions that led to the resignation.
“I suspect that all of this has to do with the elections. I think it’s more about Trump trying to make an impression on his base and projecting that he is taking a hard line on China,” said Tsang.