Trump writes to China's Xi, but Putin may meet him first

Story highlights

  • Trump and Xi have yet to speak by phone
  • Putin to travel to China in May, analysts say Trump may join him

Hong Kong (CNN)US President Donald Trump has written to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, according to the White House, the first contact the two leaders have had since Xi sent a congratulatory note for the inauguration.

Trump sent a letter to President Xi Wednesday wishing him a prosperous Year of the Rooster and saying he looks forward to developing "a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China," press secretary Sean Spicer said.
The two leaders have yet to speak by phone.
    Trump had previously been criticized by some Chinese commentators for not recording a Lunar New Year message, although his daughter and granddaughter did attend a celebration at the Chinese embassy in Washington.
    Since his election, Trump has challenged Beijing over a range of issues -- slamming its military build-up in the South China Sea, its currency and trade policies and, perhaps most controversially, upending decades of diplomatic protocol by questioning a longstanding US policy towards Taiwan.
    "We highly commend President Trump for expressing festival greetings to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday.

    Putin to meet Xi

    As Trump reached out to Beijing, it was confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet with Xi in May on the sidelines of a major economic summit, according to Russian state media.
    It is unclear whether Trump will join the pair at the "One Belt, One Road" (OBOR) forum -- Xi's landmark scheme to pump billions of dollars into infrastructure and other projects across Asia, Africa and Europe.
    According to Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Lingnan University, many in China want a meeting between Trump and Xi as soon as possible, with some suggestion that Trump could be invited to the May multilateral meeting.
    The foreign ministry spokesman shrugged off a question about whether an invitation would be extended to Trump.

    Warm ties

    Putin and Xi shake hands during a meeting in Beijing in June 2016.
    Relations between Russia and China have improved considerably in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the international sanctions that followed.
    In 2014, the two countries signed a landmark $400 billion gas deal, as well as numerous other trade and energy agreements. In September last year, Chinese and Russian naval forces conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea, where China's aggressive territorial claims have hurt relations with regional neighbors.
    Beijing has invested $40 billion in a Silk Road Fund to back OBOR, and it was the primary reason for the establishment of the $50 billion China-backed AIIB development bank.
    Though some critics have suggested the plan could harm Sino-Russian ties, as it expands Beijing's influence well into Moscow's backyard, a 2015 report by 16 Russian academics said OBOR could complement Russia's own Eurasian Economic Union, and improve ties between the two countries.
    "Driven by strengthening personal ties between Putin and Xi, the breadth and depth of China-Russia relations have spilled over into multiple spheres of governmental and institutional policymaking," according to Bob Savic, a senior research fellow at London Metropolitan University's Global Policy Institute.
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    China ties

    It is unclear whether Trump, who made criticism of expansive trade deals a key part of his platform and personally withdrew the US from President Barack Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership, would choose to attend the OBOR conference even if he was invited.
    Trump appears to favor Russia over China: he made a point of criticizing Chinese economic policy during the campaign and has also questioned US policy orthodoxy on the matter of Taiwan.
    Conversely, Xi has emerged as an unlikely champion of globalization (though his rhetoric abroad often contradicts actions at home) and a potential new leader on tackling climate change.