Trade talks between the United States and China last week ended without an agreement, except to keep on talking, but that is not reason enough to say that they failed. After all, two days of talks could hardly have sufficed to bridge the gap between American and Chinese demands. US President Donald Trump wants China to cut its annual trade surplus with the US by at least US$200 billion (S$267 billion) by the end of 2020, and not retaliate for US tariffs. Also demanded is an end to subsidies and other forms of government support for a Chinese programme that is aimed at dominating strategic industries, from robotics to new-energy vehicles, globally. These demands evidently are too onerous for the Chinese to meet. China wants the US to stop an investigation into the country's acquisition of sensitive American technology. There is no indication that the Americans are willing to countenance that possibility.
Clearly, these are maximalist demands that countries typically put on the bargaining table to demonstrate their determination to defend their opening positions in high-stake bilateral talks. They know, however, that trade negotiations, like international parleys generally, work ultimately through compromise if they are to work at all. The US delegation that visited China for the talks is back home, where Mr Trump struck a note of exasperation by exclaiming that China is "very spoiled" by trade wins over America. But his stance, too, was predictable: He was talking to his domestic constituency. Far more important is his reassertion of respect for Chinese President Xi Jinping. Effectively, the Americans are hoping that the powerful Chinese leader will personally hold the reins, on his side, of the trade relationship between the world's two largest economies. That would be a good outcome of the American delegation's infructuous visit to China. It would lead somewhere after all.