BANGKOK - There have been far too many confusing signals about the current nature of United States-China relations. The rest of the world waits tensely to learn what the two superpowers are up to. US President Donald Trump's comments on China have been reported for months and yet it remains unclear what his actual intent is or will be. We are becoming accustomed to the uncertainty surrounding the Trump White House and the speculation it needlessly fosters, but too much is riding on this particular issue for it to remain a matter of mere rumour and intimation.
China is understandably keeping its own cards close to its chest as it strives to second-guess the goals and ambitions of the immature Trump administration. Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken to Trump with authority and firmness, apparently dissuading his American counterpart from his usual cavalier attitude when it comes to diplomacy, most pointedly regarding the "one China" policy by which Beijing negates Taiwanese sovereignty.
Even if onlookers accept that it will take time to grasp the strategies at work in Washington and Beijing, both countries must know they need to work together and bridge the gaps that separate them, chiefly in terms of trade and security, to the detriment of the international community.
Both nations are of course key players in the global economy. The US is the world's most versatile market for imports from around the world, but Trump has found broad support among American voters in railing against the influx of Chinese-made goods. He will nevertheless be unlikely to make good on his rhetoric unless he is willing to risk hurting the world economy.
Pulling the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership on his first day in office eviscerated prospects for what could have been the world's most dynamic free-trade agreement. Trump's myopic "America first" vision, should he follow this course, will result in financial unpredictability that is bound to backfire on the very people he is pledged to serve. The 11 remaining nations signed up for the partnership will now struggle to salvage it, with Japan and Australia taking the lead in a difficult task.
Their struggle in the absence of the US places China in a stronger position to realise the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation, negotiations on which have all 10 Southeast Asian nations and the countries of East Asia as dialogue partners. To do so, Beijing will first have to greatly improve its relations with Japan and South Korea.
Beyond these disparate trade arrangements, and for the safety of the world itself, the US and China must attend to their responsibilities under United Nations mandates. Beijing just might be able to wean Trump away from his bitterness towards the UN and multilateralism and bring him on board for purposes of peacekeeping and sustainable development. With the US wavering or retreating on environmental issues including climate change, it is all the more crucial that China stands firm in order to pressure the US for cooperation. It will be a tricky balancing act, but an essential one.
Trust is at low ebb between the US and China on matters such as Korean Peninsula security. North Korea's nuclear ambitions constitute the reckless endangerment of the planet but more directly Asia, and Beijing recognises the need for its containment.
There is no denying that the US and China are the two foundational pillars of a global stability threatened by economic malaise, armed conflict and dramatic shifts in politics. Were the superpowers to neglect collaborative efforts both bilateral and multilateral, the world would fall into a far sorrier state.
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