A 90-day trade war truce was hammered out by United States President Donald Trump and China’s head of state Xi Jinping after a mini-summit dinner at the Group of 20 meeting in Buenos Aires.

Over steaks and Argentine wine, the two leaders brokered a ceasefire to ease global tensions and ensure that, for now, there will be no further escalation in tit-for-tat duties on hundreds of billions of goods and products.

“This was an amazing and productive meeting with unlimited possibilities for both the United States and China,” the US president said a statement. “It is my great honor to be working with President Xi.”

Existing tariffs on nearly US$250 billion of Chinese goods at 10% will stay in place but a planned hike to 25% on January 1 will be put on hold. In exchange, the US wants to start immediate talks on Washington’s biggest areas of concerns, such as Chinese trade practices, intellectual property violations, non-tariff barriers and cyber theft.

Discussions will run for roughly the next three months after the threat of further duties on Chinese imports were frozen, and Beijing agreed to buy more US goods and products, which had been on the table since last summer.

“The principal agreement has effectively prevented further expansion of economic friction between the two countries and has opened up new space for win-win cooperation,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“It is conducive not only to the development of the two countries and the well-being of the Chinese and American people but also to stable growth of the world economy,” Wang added.

Maintaining this air optimism in the next three months is open to debate as tough negotiations will certainly lie ahead. Xi gave very little away in an early statement when he said: “Only with cooperation between us can we serve the interest of both peace and prosperity.”

Still, G20 nations had been eager for signs of progress in Buenos Aires as the ongoing trade war threatened to spiral into a new economic Cold War. For global markets, this could be just the boost they are looking for.

Yet the outcome of Trump’s dinner date has sparked mixed reviews when it comes to resolving fundamental differences between the world’s two leading economies.

“I view this as a Chinese victory per my October 23 report from Beijing,” said David P Goldman, an Asia Times columnist and partner. “Trump is asking for the wrong thing, so China will give it to him. He gets to declare victory and China gets to become the dominant world economy in 15 years.”

‘Maximum demands’

Michael Pillsbury, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a defense official under US presidents including Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, tended to hedge his bets.

“Neither side got their maximum demands and it’s not the first time in US-China relations that both sides claim victory,” he told Bloomberg. “Both sides avoided the worst-case scenario.”

Apart from the Xi-Trump meeting, the annual summit concluded in Argentina’s capital with a watered-down statement.

The G20 communique was finally adopted after all-night haggling by negotiators ensured that the summit at least finished with a joint platform, unlike recent G7 and Asia-Pacific gatherings where Trump’s objections caused unprecedented breakdowns.

The group’s members, apart from the US, agreed to implement the “irreversible” Paris Agreement on climate change, ahead of a UN summit on the planetary threat starting next week in Poland, it said.

But it added that the “United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement,” mirroring the divergence seen last year when the US president shocked the global community by bucking the consensus at his first G20.

 Credibility in question

The statement also omitted pledges by the G20 to fight protectionism and uphold multilateral trading rules, which used to be a mainstay of the world’s leading economies pre-Trump.

Instead, it merely recognized the “contribution” of the “multilateral trading system,” and added that it was “falling short” in goals of growth and job creation.

“The United States, which is the most open economy in the world, does not accept being shackled,” the summit’s host, Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri, told a news conference.

The G20 also agreed to reform the World Trade Organization, which is accused by Trump of limiting US commercial freedoms to the advantage of China and other rivals.

But the conclusions were dismissed as “the lowest common denominator” by Thomas Bernes, a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Canada who used to be a G20 negotiator for the Canadian government.

“It was the weakest communique we’ve ever seen from the G20,” he told AFP, contrasting the group’s posture now in the Trump era to its sense of common purpose when the leaders first met 10 years ago in the midst of a financial crisis.

Black Sea, black gold

Trump’s determination to plow on with his “America First” agenda stands in contrast to the alliance-building presidency of George HW  Bush, whose death Friday triggered warm tributes from European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Trump said his predecessor’s passing would prevent him from holding a post-summit news conference, “out of respect” for the Bush family.

It was Trump’s second cancellation after he pulled out of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, citing Russia’s recent seizure of three Ukrainian vessels off Crimea, although the two did cross paths.

The White House characterized that encounter as an informal chat, but Putin gave it more significance.

“We spoke standing up. I replied to his questions about the incident in the Black Sea,” Putin told reporters, after coming under pressure over the issue from Merkel and Macron at the meeting.

Putin said it was “a pity” that he had not been able to have a proper meeting with Trump. “I think that one is really necessary. I hope that we can meet when the US side is ready for it.”

The Russian leader had a more productive dialogue in Buenos Aires with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

He greeted the crown prince as a long-lost friend, ignoring Western opprobrium over the prince’s alleged role in the murder of a dissident Saudi journalist in October.

U.S. President Donald trump (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends the commemorative photograph of G20 (Group of Twenty) summit conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina on November 30, 2018. The 2018 G20 Buenos Aires summit will be the 13th meeting of Group of Twenty (G20), and the first G20 summit to be hosted in South America. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun )
US President Donald Trump (L) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attend the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 30. Photo: AFP Forum via The Yomiuri Shimbun

Trump also met briefly with the crown prince, with the two men reportedly exchanging pleasantries during a leaders’ session, a White House official said. Trump later said: “We had no discussion.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir discussed the need for progress in the investigation into slain journalist’s brutal killing and dismemberment during talks on Friday, the US State Department said in a statement.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 30: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY ñ MANDATORY CREDIT - "BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI KINGDOM COUNCIL / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) President of France, Emmanuel Macron (L) chats with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman (R) within the G20 Leadersí Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina on November 30, 2018. Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout / Anadolu Agency
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman (R) at the G20 Leaders’ Summit, Buenos Aires, on November 30. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Bandar Algaloud/Handout

The Trump administration has come under fire for its perceived willingness to look the other way on the gruesome murder in order to maintain ties with a crucial Middle Eastern ally and a major buyer of US armaments.

Reports also said British Prime Minister Theresa May told the prince in a meeting on the G20 sidelines that the killers of Khashoggi should be held to account and that Saudi Arabia should move to build confidence that such an incident would never happen again.

Macron said he told the prince in a separate meeting that Europeans will insist on international experts being part of the investigation into Khashoggi’s killing, Reuters reported. Putin reportedly pulled out a pen and paper to sketch the skirmish in the meeting, Bloomberg reported.

Saudi Arabia has insisted the prince had no prior knowledge of the killing.

– This report draws on wire agency reporting, including AFP