Tucked between northeastern Beijing’s third and fourth ring-roads, the U.S. Embassy in China is a squat complex of silver-gray buildings, with the ambassador’s office on the fourth floor. Inside, besides the requisite star-spangled banners, grinning photos and auspicious Chinese calligraphy, the new occupant has placed what looks like an incongruous addition on a low shelf behind the desk: a model of a yellow-green John Deere tractor.
“They have five factories here,” U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad tells TIME in an exclusive interview, his first since arriving in Beijing in July. “But I had to sell all my John Deere stock when I was appointed ambassador because they do business in China.”
And yet a tractor is, in many ways, a fitting symbol of Branstad’s heritage as the former Governor of Iowa — America’s second most productive agricultural state after California — as well as the deep economic and cultural links he’s built with China since his first visit here in 1984. Some $1.4 billion of Iowa’s total $2.3 billion agricultural exports in 2015 went to China — mainly soybean and pork — and U.S. President Donald Trump has tasked Branstad with helping to boost the trade relationship on a national scale, hopefully eating into the $347 billion trade deficit that Trump claims costs American jobs. (Though most economists disagree.)
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