In the first direct communication between the two leaders since his inauguration, US President Donald Trump has addressed China’s Xi Jinping in a letter stating the intention to develop “a constructive relationship.” There is still no sign of a phone call being set up, however.
The letter contained a thank-you for Xi’s congratulatory note on Trump winning the presidency, and went on to suggest that the two countries find a way to smoothen out their relationship.
“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,” said a statement from White House spokesman Sean Spicer.
Despite this expressed intent at rapprochement, however, Xi only received a letter – even though Trump has held phone calls with more than a dozen international leaders since officially moving into the Oval Office.
According to Reuters, the letter was received, but no formal reaction or comment followed from Beijing on Thursday.
The news agency learned from Foreign Ministry sources in China that Beijing has been in no hurry to set up a call between the two leaders, reportedly out of fear that if the telephone conversation went wrong and the details were reported in the American press, Xi might lose face.
“It would be incredibly embarrassing for President Xi and for Chinese people, who value the concept of face,” a Chinese diplomatic source told the agency.
“These things need to happen in a very controlled environment for China, and China can’t guarantee that with the unpredictable Trump,” the source said, adding that the US president appears to have been “distracted” by other matters thus far.
The US president’s first three weeks in office have caused a stir with the Chinese, with a series of statements angering Beijing and leading to escalating tensions. This particularly concerns Trump’s questioning of the ‘One China’ policy, which holds that Taiwan is not an independent state, but part of mainland China – as well as the president’s allegations of Chinese currency manipulations and unfair trading practices, which Trump promised the American public he would address.
In line with this, the US leader has promised to impose new trade tariffs on Beijing.
There is also the question of Chinese policies in the South China Sea, where it has been setting up a military presence by building artificial islets and laying claim to territories others in the region also contest.
Washington has launched repeated verbal attacks and threats at Beijing, the latest coming from Defense Secretary James Mattis, who on Saturday reiterated the US commitment to its ally Japan. Tokyo has been growing uneasy at Chinese actions and has been beefing up its own military with record financial injections.
“I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands – the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies,” Mattis said at a press conference with his Japanese counterpart, Tomomi Inada.
According to the treaty, the US can involve itself in defending Japan – including over the Senkakus, located in the East China Sea, and disputed with China, which refers to them as the Diaoyus.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry nonetheless said last week it is willing to establish closer ties to Washington in working to settle all manner of disputes. However, as Trump’s letter indicates, both sides are being cautious about cooperation at a time when unsolved diplomatic disputes still hang overhead.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned on Wednesday that neither country should be interested in a conflict.
“For any sober-minded politician, they clearly recognize that there cannot be conflict between China and the United States because both will lose — and both sides cannot afford that,” the diplomat said after being asked about the possibility of war between the two nations during a press conference in Canberra, Australia, on Tuesday.