A good first step for US and China

US President Donald Trump (left) and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands while walking at Mar-a-Lago estate after a bilateral meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, US on April 7, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

As an exercise in damage limitation, the summit between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping worked better than officials in both countries had expected.

Mr Trump was at his convivial best, and did not put on the grumpy look he adopted when he recently hosted Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. US protocol officers also did not goof up.

And amid the showy opulence of Mr Trump's Florida residence, Mr Xi and his wife struck a restrained image. In short, official media handlers in both Beijing and Washington have every reason to breathe a sigh of relief.

Yet in concrete foreign policy terms, the first China summit of the Trump presidency achieved little more than just sketching out the challenges which lie ahead; the two presidents have shown that they can talk, but have yet to prove that they can work together.

In the lead-up to the summit, China-watchers predicted that President Xi would bring with him a number of key proposals on how to reduce China's huge trade surplus with the US, the thorniest of all bilateral issues and a key plank in Mr Trump's electoral campaign, during which he repeatedly accused China of "raping" the United States, and vowed to brand the superpower a currency manipulator.  

But that was never very likely, if only because Beijing regarded this first summit as a mere getting-to-know-you effort, the first stage in a broader haggling with Washington over trade terms.

So the agreement that the two powers will spend the next 100 days outlining their trade grievances and identifying possible solutions was the best that was ever hoped for; it took the sting out of Mr Trump's immediate anger with China, while also acknowledging that the trade imbalance remains a serious problem.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross boasted that, while previous trade talks with China were "denominated in multiple years", the fact that presidents Xi and Trump have agreed to a 100-day plan to improve trade ties and boost cooperation remained the "most significant takeaway" from the latest summit.

Perhaps, although as Mr Ross himself subsequently admitted, "given the range of issues" facing the world's most important economies, the timetable "may be ambitious".

For, as both he and the Chinese know only too well, nothing is going to be decided until Mr Trump arrives for a state visit to China later this year. Still, if the danger of unilateral US trade sanctions has been averted, that in itself is an achievement.

But other important issues were also kicked into the future. The two presidents apparently engaged in "candid discussions" on the South China Sea which, stripped of diplomatic niceties, merely means that both reiterated their old positions.

China and the US also talked about establishing a "new high-level framework" for cooperation on security questions which looks remarkably similar to what Mr Xi launched with then President Barack Obama two years ago.

Nor did the Chinese yield anything important on North Korea, apart from reiterating old slogans about the need for both sides to "exercise restraint" and "engage in dialogue".

And on Syria, a conflict in which China has no significant stake, Beijing was not prepared to give much away. "The Syrian President is elected by the people of Syria and we respect their choice," intoned a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in response to the US military strike on the country, an argument which not even Moscow, which is propping up the Damascus regime with Russian troops, has ever used in defence of the Syrian president.

Still, as the Chinese and American leaders wrapped up their summit, there was a potentially significant hint from the US that the current administration may be about to shift its policy on North Korea.

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointedly remarked, the Americans would be "happy to work" with China on stopping North Korea's nuclear quest, but "we understand it creates unique problems" for Beijing, and "are prepared to chart our own course if this is something China is just unable to coordinate with us".

In other words, either the Chinese help deal with North Korea, or the Americans would do it themselves, in ways in which the US won't specify.

China will be well advised not to dismiss this as just bluster. For it may be the start of a new approach from the Trump administration, one in which the response to North Korea's defiance is an increasing US military footprint in North Asia, precisely what Beijing fears most.

So, although Mr Trump claimed that he made "tremendous progress" in the US-China relationship during his talks with Mr Xi, the reality remains that both sides have merely staked their respective claims.

The hard work of conciliation still lies ahead, and it could prove very elusive.