The U.S. president sent a note to Xi Jinping in his first direct communication since he took office, saying he was seeking smoother ties. He thanked Xi for a congratulatory letter and wished the Chinese people a happy Year of the Rooster, according to White House spokesman Sean Spicer.
“President Trump stated that he looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China,” Spicer said in a statement Wednesday night. Trump, who has spoken with more than a dozen heads of state since taking office, is scheduled to speak on Thursday with the leaders of Afghanistan, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq.
Xi appreciated Trump’s letter, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Thursday, citing foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang. China is willing to work with the U.S. to advance ties, the report said, noting shared interests in promoting peace and prosperity.
Trump faces pressure to fulfill campaign promises to get tough on China, which he accuses of siphoning off American manufacturing jobs. The billionaire real estate developer has promised to label China a currency manipulator, bring trade complaints against the nation and impose tariffs if it doesn’t halt what he sees as unfair trading practices.
Prior U.S. leaders have not always rushed to chat on the phone with their Chinese counterparts, even though Jiang Zemin’s visit to America in October 1997 led to an agreement on a hotline. Former President George W. Bush waited until July of his first term to speak with Jiang. By contrast, Barack Obama called Hu Jintao 11 days after his inauguration in 2009.
Xi has reached out to Trump three times since his election win, including two congratulatory messages. They had a phone conversation on Nov. 14 in which Xi said cooperation was “the only correct choice” for ties.
“It’s better than nothing, but it’s only a very small gesture,” said Shi Yinhong, a foreign affairs adviser to China’s cabinet and director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, referring to Trump’s note. “Trump’s China policy hasn’t taken a clear shape yet, although all the signs so far point to a combative approach.”
In tweets since his win, Trump has questioned the One-China policy which acknowledges China and Taiwan are part of the one country — and is seen as a no-go area by Beijing. He’s criticized China’s leaders for failing to do more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump appointed noted China hawk Peter Navarro as a trade adviser, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the U.S. should deny China access to artificial reefs it built in the South China Sea.
Beijing has sought both official and informal channels to boost communication with the new administration. Trump’s daughter Ivanka was invited to a Chinese lunar new year event on Feb. 1 in the embassy in Washington, and a White House official said Ambassador Cui Tiankai and Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband and a presidential adviser, have an ongoing dialogue.
“The most worrying aspect about the new presidency is his temperament, not his policy,” said Wang Fan, director of China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations. “We’re worried he’d go to the extreme.”