Close to wrapping up his third week in office, President Donald Trump has finally reached out to Chinese President Xi Jinping with a letter.
China’s president has reached out to Trump three times since the election. He has sent two congratulatory messages, one for Trump’s election and one for his inauguration. The two also spoke briefly on the phone in November. Since his inauguration, Trump has engaged around two dozen world leaders over the phone and in person, but the phone has yet to ring in Beijing. Instead, he sent a letter to Xi offering belated Chinese New Year’s wishes and a few platitudes on cooperation.
In addition to wishing the Chinese people a “prosperous Year of the Rooster,” Trump also thanked Xi for his congratulatory note on his inauguration, the White House revealed in a statement Wednesday.
Trump added that he “looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China.”
The Chinese government responded positively to Trump’s letter.
“We highly appreciate President Trump’s holiday greetings to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday. “China is willing to work with the United States in adhering to the principles of non-confrontation, mutual respect and mutual benefit to promote cooperation, control disputes, and on a healthy and stable foundation, promote greater development in China-U.S. ties.”
Others in China were less pleased with Trump’s overture.
“It’s better than nothing, but it’s only a very small gesture,” Shi Yinhong, a Renmin University professor and foreign policy adviser with the Chinese government, told Bloomberg.
Before Trump sent his letter, some China watchers suggested Trump was purposefully ignoring China.
“It’s a sign that bad times lie ahead in the US-China relationship,” said Nick Bisley, an international relations expert in Melbourne, told the Guardian. “China is very much being lined up by Trump’s people as not quite enemy number one but something approximating that.”
Some observers noted that Beijing was concerned and considered Trump’s decision not to reach out to the president as a loss of face for the Chinese government.
Lu said, “That kind of talk is meaningless,” when asked if he thought Trump’s failure to reach out to Xi sooner was an intentional snub.
For the Chinese, a letter may actually be preferable to a meeting or a phone call given Trump’s unpredictability.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing told Reuters that China was worried that an unpleasant phone call, the details of which could be leaked to the media, might humiliate Xi.
“That is the last thing China wants,” a source close to the issue told Reuters reporters, “It would be incredibly embarrassing for President Xi and for Chinese people, who value the concept of face.”
Despite the letter, observers aren’t expecting Trump and Xi to hit it off.
“Trump’s China policy hasn’t taken a clear shape yet, although all the signs so far point to a combative approach,” Shi explained to reporters.
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