The 10 minutes with Xi Jinping that changed Donald Trump’s mind on North Korea
US President Donald Trump said he once thought Beijing had more than enough power to rein in North Korea, but changed his mind after talks last week with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
Recounting his meeting with Xi in Florida and an hour-long phone call on Wednesday, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he had “great chemistry” with the Chinese leader, a reversal of his previous anti-China rhetoric.
“We like each other. I like him a lot. I think his wife is terrific,” Trump was quoted as saying.
At a summit in which bilateral trade and North Korea’s nuclear programme topped the agenda, Trump said he told Xi that he believed Beijing could easily take care of the threat of Pyongyang, prompting Xi to explain the history of China and Korea, the report said.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realised it’s not so easy,” Trump was quoted as saying.
“I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea ... But it’s not what you would think.”
Trump gave orders on the weekend to send an aircraft carrier strike group towards the Korean peninsula.
In Wednesday’s phone call, Trump urged Xi to let North Korean leader Kim Jong-un know that the United States also had nuclear submarines.
“You cannot allow a country like that to have nuclear power, nuclear weapons,” Trump was quoted as saying. “That’s mass destruction. He doesn’t have the delivery systems yet, but he will.”
The two leaders also discussed China turning away North Korea coal shipments, the report said.
In recent months, Trump has criticised China for not doing enough to resolve threats from North Korea and accused Beijing of manipulating the yuan.
Despite those tensions, the two leaders spent hours with each other at the summit, including long stretches without their retinues. The opening discussion between them was originally planned for up to 15 minutes, but lasted for three hours.
“And then the second day we had another 10-minute meeting and that lasted for two hours,” Trump said. “We had just a very good chemistry.”
That personal relationship was not something the US leader had expected. “He’s so smart. It’s to his advantage. I like to call it flexible ,” Trump said.
Xi was also the first world leader to learn of Trump’s decision to launch a barrage of missiles into Syria on Thursday night in response to a chemical attack.
According to Fox News, Trump told Xi of his decision when they were having “beautiful piece of chocolate cake”. Xi paused for 10 seconds before saying that he was “OK” with the strike because the gas attack had killed children.
The rapport was reminiscent of the relationship Xi established with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama at Sunnylands in 2013.
Chinese analysts said Trump’s assessment amounted to diplomatic rhetoric, and the Trump-Xi relationship was not yet on par with that between Obama and Xi.
Zhang Zhexin, a US affairs specialist from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said: “It takes time to develop this initial chemistry between two leaders into a working relationship between two governments. Trump’s unpredictability and his evolving and unstable administration make it harder to develop genuine friendship with Xi.”
Liu Weidong, a US affairs analyst from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Trump’s ability to change tack had helped him gain ground with China.
“By saying things conventional politicians would never say, Trump succeeded in optimising US national interests. But it takes time to see whether this ‘bromance’ is real – a conflict could totally destroy it,” Liu said.