As tense negotiations to end the China-U.S. trade war are set to resume in Washington Wednesday, Donald Trump revealed that he once referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as “king” — adding that the Communist Party chief was flattered by the title.
Trump, recounting his 2017 state visit to Beijing during a speech at the National Republican Congressional Committee spring dinner in Washington on Tuesday evening, said Xi initially bristled at the title, but after Trump pointed out that the barriers to Xi staying in power for life had been removed, the Chinese president relented.
"He said, 'But I am not king, I am president.' I said 'No, you're president for life, and therefore you're king'," Trump said, prompting laughter in the audience.
Trump added: “He liked that, I get along with him great.”
Trump’s comments to Xi in November 2017 came just months before the National People’s Congress rubber-stamped new legislation that removed the two-term limit on Xi, allowing him to remain in power indefinitely.
But soon after Trump’s visit to Beijing, relations with Washington turned sour.
In December 2017, the U.S. labeled China a “strategic competitor” and months later the current trade war kicked off in earnest, with both sides imposing sanctions on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods.
Trump said Tuesday that had he not imposed the tariffs, the Chinese economy would have quickly surpassed the U.S.
“They would have caught us within a short period of time, within two years, by the end of my term, if you had a normal president,” Trump said. “But right now it's going to be a long time before they catch us.”
Despite widespread criticism of China’s abusive trade practices from the U.S. business community, Trump said he “respected” them.
“They've taken advantage of our country and you know what, I respect them for it. I say it, we should have been doing that to them,” Trump said.
Talks to strike a new trade deal are set to continue on Wednesday, when U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will meet with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He.
Trump has been known to conduct diplomacy through flattery in the past, especially when it comes to strongman leaders. He has called Kim Jong Un “a great leader,” while labeling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “a strong leader” who has “very strong control over a country.”
This article originally appeared on VICE News.