09/11/2017 10:31 PM AEDT | Updated 09/11/2017 10:31 PM AEDT

Donald Trump Praises China Over U.S. Trade Deficit

President Donald Trump, who once called China an "economy enemy" whose trade relationship with the United States amounted to "rape," put forth a notably softer stance when visiting the country on Thursday.

"I don't blame China" for trade imbalances, Trump said during a joint signing of new business deals worth $250 billion with Chinese President Xi Jinping. "After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit."

Trump instead blamed his predecessors "for allowing this out-of-control trade deficit to take place and grow."

Calling Xi a "very special man," Trump described their relationship as "very warm" and having "great chemistry." The Chinese leader, who is more powerful than ever, did not offer the same level of effusive praise.

"Of course there are some frictions, but on the basis of win-win cooperation and fair competition, we hope we can solve all these issues in a frank and consultative way," Xi said.

Later on Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did some damage control during his own Beijing news conference, telling reporters that Trump's remarks were "a little bit tongue and cheek." He emphasized Trump's point that the blame lies with past administrations, who left the door open for China ― a "developing" nation ― to trample over the U.S.

Thomas Peter / Reuters
Trump attends a welcoming ceremony on Nov. 9, 2017.

Trump said the new business deals with American companies such as Boeing, General Electric and chip giant Qualcomm would be "fair and tremendous for both of us."

Trump's approach to dealing with China has been full of surprises from the start. After repeatedly attacking the country during his campaign, vowing to rebalance the trade deficit, he hosted Xi at his Mar-A-Lago resort in April. It was then that Trump began to scale back his rhetoric, expressing his personal affinity for Xi and outlining a strategy for dealing with North Korea ― which placed China front and center. China, he's said, holds the key to de-escalating tensions with the rogue regime.

Trump is about halfway through a 12-day visit to Asia, where the focus has so far been on the North Korean nuclear threat. His next stop is Vietnam, where he will attend an economic conference, followed by the Philippines, where he will meet with strongman president Rodrigo Duterte.