EXECUTIVE

Trump reaches out to China's Xi in letter instead of phone call

FILE 2017: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the guests at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva.

FILE 2017: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the guests at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva.  (Reuters)

President Donald Trump has issued belated well-wishes to China for the Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in the world's most populous nation, saying he hoped to work with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to build a "constructive relationship."

Trump had been the only U.S. president in recent years not to have issued greetings when the holiday fell on Jan. 28, triggering speculation in China as to whether it was an oversight or an intentional slight.

A statement from the White House late Wednesday said Trump wrote to Chinese President Xi Jinping wishing the Chinese people greetings for the new year and the Lantern Festival that falls on Saturday.

"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," the statement said.

China said it appreciated Trump’s holiday greeting. When asked if Xi felt snubbed that Trump called other world leaders, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “This kind of remark is meaningless.”

Trump has accused Beijing of unfair trade practices and currency manipulation, criticized China's military buildup in the South China Sea and accused Beijing of doing too little to pressure neighbor North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.

He also upended four decades of diplomatic protocol by speaking by phone with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory.

Beijing decried the phone call with Tsai and has rejected the other accusations. China has in fact been spending heavily from its pile of foreign currency reserves to prop up the value of its currency, which would make its exports less competitive.

Nick Bisley, an international relations expert at La Trobe University in Australia said Trump’s decision not to call Beijing is a sign of “bad times” ahead.

“China is very much being lined up by Trump’s people as not quite enemy number one but something approximating that,” Bisley said.

The prospect of a military confrontation over the South China Sea had also been raised by Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon when he hosted the conservative Breitbart News Daily radio show in 2015 and 2016.

Bannon said he envisioned the possibility of a U.S.-China war over the strategic waterbody within five to 10 years. China, which claims the sea virtually in its entirety, has been building man-made islands in the area and equipping them with airstrips and military installations.

Despite Trump's confrontational image, Chinese internet users were warmed by a brief video clip of Donald Trump's granddaughter singing in Chinese that circulated on the web earlier this month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report