Around this time last year, all eyes were locked on the historic first handshake between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. But that fragile opening for peace was dammed by the eruption of the US-China trade war in the weeks that followed as Washington unleashed the first round of China-specific tariffs. The world recoiled. The order was reversed somewhat at the weekend. First came the trade war truce, after 80 minutes of talks between Mr Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka last Saturday. The next day, Mr Trump entered the history books again as the first sitting US president to cross into North Korea during an impromptu third meeting with Mr Kim at the Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ).
It will be a steep climb from a trade truce to trade-as-usual between the world's two largest economies. Beijing wants Washington to roll back tariffs currently applied on US$250 billion (S$339 billion) of Chinese goods and to be more "realistic" about the amount of goods and services that it expects China to purchase, and for the final deal to be "balanced", that is, not feature a list of concessions that will hurt national pride. US expectations are as daunting. These are that China must produce "detailed and enforceable" commitments that will reduce its large trade surplus with the US, provide a level playing field to US firms in Chinese markets, and end intellectual property theft and coercive technology transfer. If Mr Trump's blacklisting of Huawei was a negotiating ploy, China seems to have withstood the pressure on its technology champion, which is once again allowed to buy components from US firms. Washington and Beijing appear evenly matched. But it is a delicate balance. For Mr Trump, who is in re-election mode, going soft on China is not an option. Mr Xi is under similar pressure. He can ill afford the optics of yielding an inch to "unfair" US demands. If either leader seeks to excite nationalistic passions, things could quickly go south. Again.