This post has been updated.

Two years ago, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad introduced Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to a friend he had known for decades: Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Branstad and Xi met in 1985. Branstad was a fresh young governor and Xi was a low-ranking government official participating in a two-week agricultural delegation trip to Muscatine, Iowa. The two kept in touch as Branstad became the country's longest serving governor, and Xi climbed the ranks and became president. Branstad keeps photos of his old friend in the governor's office, showing them off to guests as he gushes about the diplomatic power of friendship. Soon after Xi became president in 2013, a small group of governors traveled to China and met Xi  in China's Great Hall of the People, where they discussed the power of partnership.

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Fast-forward to this week: Branstad is presiding over a crowded field of Republicans who want to become the next president and need to perform well in the Iowa caucuses. Walker is one of those candidates -- an early favorite in Iowa who is now struggling to stand out from the crowd and on Monday decided to take a strong stance against China, urging President Obama to cancel an upcoming state dinner with Xi.

"Rather than honoring Chinese President Xi Jinping with an official state visit next month, President Obama should focus on holding China accountable over its increasing attempts to undermine U.S. interests," Walker said in the statement. "There's serious work to be done rather than pomp and circumstance. We need to see some backbone from President Obama on U.S.-China relations."

That's a stance that could hurt Walker's relationship with Branstad and farmers in Iowa, who export millions of dollars worth of soybeans to China each year. Asked to respond to Walker's comments, Branstad's spokesman Jimmy Centers said in a statement: "China is a valuable trading partner for Iowa and the state has had a friendly relationship with President Xi dating back to his first visit to Iowa in 1985."

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Walker argues that China has become increasingly aggressive in recent months and is no longer a true ally. On the campaign trail, Walker regularly criticizes China for mounting cyberattacks against the U.S. government and private businesses, pushing into international waters and the country's "abysmal record when it comes to human rights, particularly the persecution of Christians." One of Walker's most popular answers during the first GOP debate earlier this month is when he joked that the Russian and Chinese governments likely "know more about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server than do the members of the United States Congress."

As Walker's statement and comments circulated on Monday, critics quickly brought up his nine-day trade mission to China in 2013 and pointed to photos of the Wisconsin governor meeting with Xi, touring the country and riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at a newly opened dealership in Tianjin. That was Walker's first foreign trade mission, and he still boasts about how it netted a  10-year agreement to sell $150 million to $200 million worth of ginseng to the Chinese. Walker has said that Wisconsin has also seen an increase in tourists from China who visit the state's ginseng fields as if they were vineyards in Napa Valley.
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AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Walker's campaign, pushed back against critics who juxtaposed Walker's comments this week with his 2013 trade trip.

“There is no equivalence between a routine trade mission and honoring the Chinese president with one of the United States’ highest forms of diplomatic flattery," Strong said in a statement Tuesday. "Rather than high honors and an unnecessary ceremony for President Xi, President Obama should be focused on real engagement. Holding China accountable for its egregious actions doesn’t negate the importance of trade."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Branstad organized the 2013 trade mission to China. The trip was coordinated by the National Governors Association. 

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