Following the cancellation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile, the United States and China are seeking another location to seal their "Phase 1" trade deal, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said yesterday.
He said a deal would "calm people down a lot" and give hope that the trade war between the two would eventually be resolved.
He also said he was "reasonably optimistic" that the starter deal, which would give some respite to companies facing uncertainty about their global supply chains, could be made.
Mr Ross was speaking to reporters from Bangkok after attending the US-backed Indo-Pacific Business Forum on the sidelines of the Asean summit this week.
He noted that the first phase of negotiations covered only items like soya beans - which the US wants China to buy more of - and not what he called "structural" issues like intellectual property rights, forced technology transfer and equal market access - the reasons Washington began imposing tariffs on Chinese products last year.
Since then, both powers have slapped punitive levies on each other's imports in a tit-for-tat fashion. Washington also restricted US companies from selling technology to Chinese-owned Huawei, the world's biggest supplier of telecommunications equipment.
The International Monetary Fund last month cut its full-year global growth projection to 3 per cent - the lowest in a decade - largely due to the fallout from the trade war.
It was an issue that weighed heavily on regional leaders who gathered over the weekend in Thailand, where 15 countries - Asean's 10 member states plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand - announced their readiness to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world's largest free trade agreement, next year.
Mr Ross called it an "oversimplification" to blame the global slowdown on the trade war, given the uncertainty arising from Britain's impending departure from the European Union and turmoil in Latin American countries.
Bloomberg news agency reported that the US states of Iowa, Alaska, Hawaii as well as locations in China were being considered as possible alternative venues for US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to sign the deal.
It would go some way to rebuild trust between the two administrations, said Mr Ross. "That's a really important thing as we get to the more sensitive negotiations... issues like intellectual property rights, like forced technology transfer, like equal market access.
"We are hopeful that Phase 1 would be the precursor of a much more robust set of agreements."
Whether that would ease the larger US-China strategic rivalry is another issue. At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, the US also launched the Blue Dot Network, a voluntary scheme to certify infrastructure projects for transparency and sustainability. It is widely seen as the US' response to the growing reach of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects blamed for ensnaring some countries in debt traps.
"We already have several countries indicating at the Asean conference privately that they will be very shortly announcing their willingness to participate in Blue Dot," Mr Ross said yesterday, in response to questions from The Straits Times. "Countries that sign up for Blue Dot will be countries that are committed to sustainable infrastructure development...
"We also think it's important as a symbol of the US commitment to being long-term environmentally sound," he added.