President Donald Trump waxed lyrical about his good "chemistry" and "bonding" with Chinese leader Xi Jinping Wednesday -- a rhetorical U-turn which the White House believes is already paying dividends.
Putting harsh campaign rhetoric about China's "rape" of the US economy in the rear-view mirror, Trump went out of his way to praise Xi for help on North Korea and Syria.
Trump hosted China's leader -- the most powerful in decades -- at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last week, and the pair spoke again by phone on Tuesday.
"We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade," Trump said in a Wednesday press conference.
"I was very impressed with President Xi and I think he means well and I think he wants to help. We'll see whether or not he does."
Trump and his top aides believe that the courtship, though in the early stages, is already paying off.
China on Wednesday refused to back Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Trump described as an "animal" and a "butcher."
"I think it's wonderful that they abstained," Trump said, adding he had spoken to Xi and was not surprised by China's decision.
"We're honored by the vote. That's the vote that should have taken place."
- Friendly in Florida -
Last week, Trump launched a military strike against one Assad airfield as punishment for a suspected sarin nerve agent attack against a village in central Syria.
Behind closed doors, a top Trump aide said China's abstention at the UN helped show how isolated the Assad regime and its Russian backers -- who vetoed the resolution -- were.
"It was the relationship which was solidified at Mar-a-Lago that helped make that possible," said the official, on condition of anonymity.
Trump also heralded China's decision to turn away North Korean coal shipments -- a vital export for the regime and a key part of much flouted UN Security Council resolutions.
"A lot of the coal boats have already been turned back -- you saw that yesterday and today -- they’ve been turned back. The vast amount of coal that comes out of North Korea going to China, they've turned back the boats. That's a big step, and they have many other steps that I know about," he said.
"We have a very big problem in North Korea," Trump said, alluding to serious US concerns that Pyongyang may be only months away from marrying nuclear and missile technology to build a nuke that can reach the US mainland.
"I really think that China is going to try very hard, and has already started."
Trump said he also told Xi that the "way you're (China is) going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea."
- Grand bargain? -
That was the first of several hints of what could be a far-reaching grand bargain with America's most potent geopolitical and economic rival.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump was more specific and backed away from a campaign promise to tackle China for manipulating its currency to gain a trade advantage.
Trump had promised to label Beijing a currency manipulator on his first day in office, a designation that could have ended with punitive tariffs and a potential trade war between the world's two largest economies.
China for years was accused of keeping its currency artificially low to make its exports cheaper and more competitive compared to US goods.
"They're not currency manipulators," Trump said flatly, adding that Beijing had not been manipulating its currency for months -- a point economists have been making for a much longer time.
"'But you want to make a great deal? Solve the problem in North Korea.' That's worth having deficits," Trump said he told Xi, in the interview with The Wall Street Journal.
"And that's worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make."arb/sst