A Spring Thaw? Trump Now Has ‘Very Good’ Words for China’s Leader

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BEIJING — President Trump came into office fuming about China. But lately he has been describing his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, as if Mr. Xi were an old friend, even in dealing with deep divisions over North Korea.

“I believe he is trying very hard,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday. “He is a good man. He is a very good man, and I got to know him very well.”

That’s heady praise for someone the president had never met before this month. But Mr. Trump’s time as a businessman may help make sense of his backslapping tributes to Mr. Xi.

In “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” his braggadocious memoir-cum-business playbook from 1987, Mr. Trump explained how he flattered, pummeled, cajoled and bluffed his way to what he wanted. He seems to hope to use the same tactics with China.

“A little hyperbole never hurts,” he wrote of his deal-making.

Before the recent courtship, Mr. Trump had little good to say about China or Mr. Xi. In March 2016, Mr. Trump was asked in an interview with The New York Times about his impressions of Mr. Xi. Instead, he vented about China’s trade surplus with the United States.

“Nobody has manipulated economic conditions better than they have,” he said.

After Mr. Trump won the election, he kept taking potshots at the Chinese leadership. In December, Mr. Trump had a friendly phone chat with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, alarming Chinese officials, who regard Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi had a brief phone call days after the American election, but more than two months passed before they had their next call — their first since the president took office. Mr. Trump said he would honor the “One China” policy, under which the United States does not give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.

But even as that issue faded as a source of tension with China, Mr. Trump has appeared increasingly alarmed about North Korea.

After the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said on Jan. 1 that his government was preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, Mr. Trump complained that China had not put enough pressure on its ally and neighbor.

“China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.

The signs before his first meeting with Mr. Xi were not promising.

Days before they met at Mr. Trump’s resort in Florida, the president warned that China had to play along on North Korea or get out of the way.

“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Financial Times. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”

But Mr. Trump’s potentially frosty first encounter with Mr. Xi turned out to be fairly amicable, and has been followed by two phone calls to discuss North Korea.

They didn’t see eye to eye on many things, but at least they were talking, and Mr. Trump was effusive about his new friend.

Mr. Trump told Fox Business Network that he had a “very, very good meeting with President Xi of China.”

Mr. Trump invoked Mr. Xi again on Saturday, when he condemned North Korea’s latest, failed missile test. “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.

“I really liked him,” Mr. Trump said of their talks in Florida. “We had a great chemistry, I think. I mean at least I had a great chemistry — maybe he didn’t like me, but I think he liked me.”

Mr. Xi isn’t the only Asian leader caught in something of a whipsaw courtship with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump has boasted about his new friendship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, another country that was the target of his campaign warnings.

“We have a very, very good bond — very, very good chemistry,” Mr. Trump said after meeting Mr. Abe in February.

Mr. Trump even appears willing to sprinkle a little flattery on Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, who has accelerated his government’s drive for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age,” he said in the Reuters interview of Mr. Kim, who is part of a dynastic succession.

“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do.”

The initial rush of good will between Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi might not last. China and the United States disagree on how harshly to pressure North Korea, and that rift could widen if North Korea stages another nuclear test.

In the same Reuters interview, Mr. Trump said, “We could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” Not the kind of soothing talk that Mr. Xi says is needed to coax North Korea into concessions.

Washington and Beijing also have stubborn disagreements over trade and China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea. The United States is installing an antimissile system in South Korea that China sees as a threat to its own missile defenses.

As Mr. Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal,” words can carry a cause only so far.

“You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole,” Mr. Trump wrote. “But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”