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Donald Trump (L) and Xi Jinping Image Credit: AFP

Washington: He likes one and admits to falling in love with the other. He treasures letters from each of them. And he believes the personal rapport he built with both could clear the way to historic agreements on trade and nuclear arms that have eluded his predecessors.

To President Donald Trump, all diplomacy is personal, especially with the two Asian strongmen he has courted most avidly, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Xi Jinping of China.

But Trump’s honeymoon with Kim came to an abrupt end in Vietnam last month, and his conviction that agreements between nations are little different than real estate deals between bosses now faces another stiff test with the Chinese president.

In trade talks with China that are heading towards a potential meeting with Xi, Trump hopes to overcome decades of distrust to sign an agreement that would end a bitter trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

But the debacle in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, where Trump not only failed to strike a disarmament deal but also was miles apart from Kim, laid bare a fundamental weakness in his deal-making: his belief that bluster and force of personality can bridge deep-rooted differences and lack of preparation.

It also showed that strongmen, whom Trump has so ardently cultivated, can be as frustrating to negotiate with as democratically elected leaders.

Even more than Kim, Xi would bring a complex mix of advantages and vulnerabilities to a meeting with Trump. Rather than calibrating his approach to those realities, some worry the president will fall prey to the same pitfalls and miscalculations that doomed his meeting with the North Korean dictator.

The Chinese share those qualms. Plans for the two leaders to meet at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida, at the end of March are now on hold, largely because the Chinese fear that the president could walk out on Xi like he did on Kim.

“Trump is running the same play,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former China adviser to President Barack Obama. “But it’s fundamentally flawed, whether you’re dealing with a strong leader in a totalitarian society or a strong leader in a diverse, integrated society.”

In both cases, Medeiros said, the president is relying on his charm, as well as his ability to read people and improvise, to persuade his counterpart to agree to a difficult structural change: China, to overhaul its state-directed economy; North Korea, to give up a nuclear program that the Kim dynasty views as critical to its survival.

Yet Trump has shown a propensity to relax his terms as the negotiations unfold. He went from demanding that North Korea rapidly and completely disarm to saying he was in no hurry, as long as Kim stopped testing nuclear bombs or missiles.

He went from demanding that China abandon an array of what he calls predatory trade practices to undermining his own chief trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, when he began to explain the memorandums of understanding that would codify those concessions in a trade pact between the United States and China.

“Based on the Trump-Kim summit, it is clear that Trump’s partners know a lot more about where their bottom line is than Trump does,” said Minxin Pei, an expert in US-China relations at Claremont McKenna College.

Having failed in Vietnam, he said, Trump might be even more motivated to make a deal with the Chinese president. Unlike the nuclear showdown with North Korea, which poses security risks but is a faraway threat to most Americans, the trade war with China has exacted heavy costs on US farmers, automakers and manufacturers.

“Trump cares more about his re-election than about forcing structural change in China,” Pei said.

Some of Trump’s top aides — like Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, and the chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow — have urged Trump to find a compromise with Beijing, warning about the damage that his escalating tariffs could have on the stock market, which he views as a barometer of his presidency.

The divisions between hardliners and pragmatists on Trump’s economic team are more pronounced than on his national security team, where Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and the national security adviser, John Bolton, urged Trump to walk away from a bad deal with North Korea.

Kim and Xi, meanwhile, have shown an instinct to try to play Trump. In Hanoi, the North Korean leader proposed to dismantle a single plutonium reactor and extend the halt in nuclear and missile testing in return for Trump’s lifting all economic sanctions.

The Chinese have offered to buy billions of dollars of US oil, gas and soybeans, which would give Trump an easy victory, in return for the United States rolling back its tariffs. But they have not yet agreed to enforcement mechanisms against more pernicious practices, like the forced transfer of US technology.

The collapse in Hanoi, analysts said, has echoed loudly in Beijing, where officials are leery of sending Xi into another unpredictable encounter with Trump in Florida. With so much at stake, they are pushing to button up any agreement beforehand.

For Trump, the biggest hurdle to a Nixon and Mao moment in Palm Beach may be that Xi is simply unwilling to risk the kind of on-the-fly deal-making that the US president — and Kim — seem to relish.

“The Chinese are obsessive about process,” said Jeffrey A. Bader, a former China adviser to Obama. “They don’t believe in the big guy swooping in. They haven’t done that since Mao.”