The Straits Times says

A hopeful spring for Sino-US ties?

The summit between United States President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping was significant because it marked the transition from the former's campaign bluster to realpolitik. Mr Trump's anti-China tirades during his campaigning for the presidency had been strident even by the standards of political posturing expected during an adversarial process, in which an anti-China dig comes in useful domestically. Mr Trump had gone much further, threatening to brand as a currency manipulator a country that he blamed for the economic rape of America. As President-elect, he even had accepted a call from Taiwan's leader, in a move which appeared to suggest a break with America's one-China policy.

Last week's Trump-Xi summit in the US should mark the beginning of a new, more mature and, hence, more sustainable phase in the world's most important bilateral relationship. No breakthroughs were made but, then, none had been expected. Instead, the meeting established a new framework for high-level transactions between the two powers. They also pledged to make progress on trade negotiations in the next 100 days, an indication that economic issues will figure prominently in the Trump administration's ties with China, which are burdened by a multibillion-dollar US trade deficit. Beijing needs to acknowledge the new mood in many parts of America that is symbolised by Mr Trump's ascendancy.

A major global economy like China should not give protectionist lobbies in the US a handle with which to beat free trade, which helps everyone ultimately. Instead, the challenge is for both countries to take a stand against de-globalisation, which represents an international race to the bottom when nations try to shore up their financial bottom lines by drawing up tariff and other barriers against others. The last time when this occurred on an overwhelming scale - in the 1930s - the result was to tilt an already shaky global economic order into World War II. Free trade must remain a bulwark of the current international order, overseen by primary stakeholders such as the US, China, Japan, India and the European Union.

Apart from economic issues, strategic choices and events will test the Sino-US relationship. North Korea's seemingly unstoppable ability to act as a free agent in that relationship is a matter of deep international concern. Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities, catching up with its ambitions test after test, will require China to use all its powers of persuasion over the recalcitrant state. Although North Korea is not non-nuclear Syria, which has drawn a swift American response following the use of chemical weapons, China must contemplate the consequences of unilateral US action on Pyongyang. Beijing also must recalibrate its moves in the South China Sea, which could see the US being drawn into a festering dispute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'A hopeful spring for Sino-US ties?'. Print Edition | Subscribe