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International Relations

Trump reaches out to China, not by phone, but in a letter

Despite advice from experts, US leader likely staying tough on Beijing

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- Donald Trump contacted Chinese President Xi Jinping through a letter Thursday, an unusual means of communication given that he has spoken to a number of world leaders by phone. 

Trump wrote that he looked forward to developing "a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China," the White House said in a statement. He thanked Xi for a congratulatory letter on his recent inauguration and wished the Chinese people a prosperous year.

The letter may have come at the behest of China experts in the U.S. who are alarmed by deteriorating bilateral ties.

This is the U.S. president's first direct contact with Xi since taking office Jan. 20. The leaders had agreed to meet soon during a phone conversation in November, shortly after Trump was elected. But Trump then also spoke with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December and tweeted about the conversation.

Since the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979, no other American president or president-elect had publicly contacted the island's leader. Beijing was furious at the perceived transgression of its "one China" policy, under which Taiwan is considered part of China.

Relations quickly cooled when Trump said the U.S. was "hurt very badly" by Beijing building "a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea," and China responded by seizing a U.S. underwater drone.

When Trump failed to issue a greeting for the Lunar New Year in late January, Chinese media slammed him for breaking with tradition. Though it's unclear whether Trump was intentionally silent or just forgot, many thought he showed a lack of diplomatic courtesy.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was among those alarmed by these developments. His surprise visit to China in 1971 as national security adviser played a key role in establishing diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington. He still visits the country several times a year and remains close to the Chinese leadership, boasting his influence over U.S. policy. Some in Washington thought Kissinger lost face as a result of Trump's staunch animosity toward China .

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Peter Navarro, head of the new National Trade Council, are China hawks. Trump is eager to break from predecessor Barack Obama's foreign policy, which he believes showed weakness and allowed China's maritime expansion.

"We highly commend President Trump for his festive greetings to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday when asked about the letter. "China attaches great importance to growing its relations with the United States."

"China will work with the U.S., in the principle of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation," the spokesman said.

China is wary of Trump, who has criticized the country repeatedly over Taiwan, the South China Sea, trade and currency policies. But Beijing still wants to cooperate with the U.S. on equal footing, and is not expected to make a move until Trump's intentions become more clear.

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