The American ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, announced on Monday that he would step down in early October after a tenure that paralleled a sharp deterioration in relations between China and the United States.
Mr. Branstad, who twice served as governor of Iowa and was a crucial early supporter of Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016, arrived in Beijing in the summer of 2017 with high hopes of using a personal connection to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to build stronger ties.
Instead, he found himself on the front lines of President Trump’s trade war and, by this year, a downward spiral of tensions that, to many, has heralded a new era of Cold War-like confrontation between the world’s two largest economies.
Mr. Branstad, who is 73, did not say why he was departing now, only months before the presidential election, but it is not unusual for political appointees to serve only a single term.
In a statement announcing his departure, Mr. Branstad cited his role in two of the most contentious issues between China and the United States during his tenure — the trade war, which ended with a tenuous truce last January, and a pledge by China to crack down on the illicit trade in fentanyl, the synthetic opioid fueling an epidemic killing tens of thousands of Americans a year.
He echoed the arguments of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other hawks in the administration that the United States needed “to rebalance” the relationship with China but added a conciliatory note that better ties would benefit both countries.
“We are rebalancing the U.S.-China relationship so that it is fair and reciprocal and can fuel positive growth in both countries,” he wrote.
He said he informed Mr. Trump of his decision last week and told the embassy staff, still depleted because of travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, in a meeting on Monday. It was not immediately clear whether the administration would be able to move quickly enough to appoint a new ambassador before the end of the presidential term.
Mr. Pompeo said on Twitter that Mr. Trump had chosen Mr. Branstad “because his decades long experience with China made him the best person to represent the Administration and to defend American interests and ideals.”
Mr. Branstad kept a lower profile than some of his predecessors at the embassy, though that in part reflected Mr. Trump’s outsize role as his own public messenger on China. The ambassador met privately with Mr. Xi, whom he first met in 1985 while the future Chinese leader was a county official touring rural America, but the personal relationship failed to translate into closer ties.
Mr. Branstad traveled extensively throughout the country, visiting 26 of the 34 provinces and regions, including a rare trip to Tibet in 2019. His efforts to build good will, however, often faced resistance from the Chinese as tensions rose over trade and the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week the State Department complained that the People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, refused to publish an op-ed by Mr. Branstad, who hoped to take his message directly to Chinese readers as his counterpart in Washington, Cui Tiankai, often does with Americans.
“The People’s Daily’s 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 lack of fair and reciprocal treatment in other countries,” the department said in a statement.
The People’s Daily responded by saying that Mr. Branstad’s article was “full of loopholes and seriously inconsistent with the facts.”