U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad said he is more optimistic now that a trade deal with China can be sealed, but he and other U.S. officials continue to be concerned about the communist nation’s failure to live up to previous promises.

“I am more encouraged than I have been during the last year,” Branstad, the former longtime Iowa governor, said in a telephone interview from Beijing at 10 a.m. today Beijing time, 8 p.m. Thursday in Des Moines. 

“When we had the discussions in China a few weeks ago, we had a delegation of 70 people, including a lot of people who have expertise in some of these critical issues involving patents and other areas in which structure reform is needed,” Branstad said. “And the Chinese also had a rather large delegation. And we’ll have the ear of President Xi Jinping. He is really the one who I think really has the ability to reach a deal. The fact that we’re having these constructive discussions with him and [U.S. Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer and [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin is encouraging.”

The U.S. and China have been locked in a trade war that spawned a series of tariffs that have damaged both economies, including Iowa’s soybean market. China buys more soybeans than the rest of the world combined, Branstad said. 

Recent talks have suggested at least a general agreement may be close, but the Chinese have worried that President Donald Trump will change his mind, and U.S. interests burned by the Chinese before also have been wary. There are questions over whether the U.S. could even deliver the goods that Trump wants the Chinese to buy. And falling exports in China are causing a global stock sell-off

Branstad said China’s demand for soybeans has fallen too because of an African swine fever outbreak that has reduced the hog population in the country. The Chinese are huge consumers of pork, another potential market for Iowa if a pact comes through, he added. 

A date for a proposed meeting between President Xi and President Trump at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida had not been set by this morning. 

“There have been very intense negotiations, and progress has been made,” Branstad said. “But there’s a lot of very difficult issues and structural issues that have not been able to be addressed over decades, things like intellectual property rights, technology transfer, access to certain aspects of the Chinese markets, and then having a mechanism to get an agreement to enforce it."

How do we get beyond the current trade spat and forge long-term deals to exchange goods and services with the Chinese? 

“That’s a very good question,” Branstad said. “And that’s really, I think, what the administration is trying to do, recognizing [that] in the past we’ve had many agreements that have not been fulfilled, where the Chinese have used non-trade barriers and things and promise ‘we’ll open up,’ then it keeps being delayed and then they have to get certain permits and this kind of stuff. 

“The goal here is to come up with a long-term, enforceable, comprehensive agreement that will last,” Branstad said. “That is a huge undertaking, especially in light of the fact that there were a lot of disappointments that China was approved to enter the [World Trade Organization], which the United States strongly supported. And the United States has been very helpful to China and they’ve gone through a tremendous period of economic growth, and American companies and American technologies played an important role. But China has cheated, and may have stolen intellectual property,” including crop material taken straight out of Iowa farm fields.