[It is unclear whether the letter was meant as a substitute for an anticipated phone conversation between the two leaders or as an ice-breaking prelude to such a call. Before his inauguration, Mr. Trump and his cabinet appointees made comments and took actions that alarmed Beijing and pointed to rocky ties between the world’s two biggest economies.]
By Michael Forsythe
President Xi Jinping of China in Lima, Peru, last year. The fact that President
Trump and Mr. Xi have not talked since Mr. Trump took office in January has
drawn increasing scrutiny. Credit Cris Bouroncle/Agence France-Presse
— Getty Images
HONG KONG — President Trump has sent a letter to his Chinese counterpart saying he looked forward to developing a “constructive relationship” with Beijing, the latest in a series of conciliatory signals by the new administration after months of heated rhetoric aimed at America’s largest trading partner.
The letter, dated Wednesday, also thanked China’s president, Xi Jinping, for a message he sent congratulating Mr. Trump on his inauguration and conveyed wishes to the Chinese people for the Lunar New Year, the White House said in a two-sentence statement.
It is unclear whether the letter was meant as a substitute for an anticipated phone conversation between the two leaders or as an ice-breaking prelude to such a call. Before his inauguration, Mr. Trump and his cabinet appointees made comments and took actions that alarmed Beijing and pointed to rocky ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
Since his inauguration, Mr. Trump has spoken by phone with about 20 foreign leaders. Usually highly scripted affairs, many of those calls have been anything but. The president’s conversation last month with Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of Australia, turned contentious when Mr. Turnbull urged Mr. Trump to honor an agreement made under President Barack Obama to accept 1,250 refugees from an offshore detention center.
But arguably no bilateral relationship is more important than the one between Beijing and Washington, and the fact that Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi have not talked since Mr. Trump took office in January has drawn increasing scrutiny.
Lu Kang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, expressed thanks for Mr. Trump’s letter. He declined to comment on whether a phone call between the two leaders was in the works, dismissing as “senseless” speculation that Mr. Trump was snubbing Mr. Xi by not scheduling one.
“The two countries share wide common interests, and cooperation is the only correct path for both,” Mr. Lu told reporters on Thursday in Beijing.
Even without a phone call, Mr. Trump and his advisers have markedly shifted their tone toward China since the inauguration.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump advocated a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States, complaining that China manipulated the value of its currency. After his election, he broke decades of precedent by talking to Taiwan’s leader, going so far as to say that the One China policy — a linchpin of United States-China ties that recognizes a single China with Taiwan included — was negotiable. Last month, in his confirmation hearings, Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state, suggested that America would bar China from its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
But after the inauguration, the tone has changed, with dialogue and diplomacy replacing diatribes. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, attended a Lunar New Year celebration this month at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. Mr. Trump’s granddaughter Arabella sang a New Year’s greeting in Mandarin that was widely viewed in China. Her father, Jared Kushner, who is a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, met with China’s ambassador, Cui Tiankai, before the embassy event, part of an extensive dialogue between the two men, Bloomberg News reported.
For his part, Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, said that the United States would focus on diplomacy to help resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, talked by phone last week with China’s top foreign affairs official, Yang Jiechi.
“I think the letter indicates that Sino-U.S. relations should be O.K.,” Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, wrote in an email. “Kushner is said to be in charge of Trump’s Israel, Mexico and China policies. His wife’s visit to the Chinese Embassy and his own meeting with Cui Tiankai are signs that Trump does not want to rock the relationship.”
The extensive business relationships between some of Mr. Trump’s advisers and leading Chinese companies with close links to the Communist Party may also be strengthening ties. Mr. Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, took part in talks last year with the Chinese billionaire Wu Xiaohui to help redevelop the Kushner family’s crown jewel, a commercial building on Fifth Avenue, The New York Times reported.
And sitting to the right of Mr. Trump at a White House meeting this month was Mr. Wu’s principal business partner in the United States, Stephen A. Schwarzman, who set up a scholarship program at Mr. Xi’s alma mater in Beijing. Mr. Schwarzman, who is chairman of the president’s business council, is chief executive of the Blackstone Group, which has sold more than $12 billion in assets in recent months to Anbang and another politically connected company in China, HNA Group.
“I think it’s an expression of good will,” Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, said by telephone of Mr. Trump’s letter. “It’s necessary to handle this relationship with practical cooperation.”
Follow Michael Forsythe on Twitter @PekingMike.
Yufan Huang and Kiki Zhao contributed research from Beijing.