Asian nations eager for the US and China to get along were pleased that Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met face-to-face last month, but still want deeper trade relations with Washington, a senior US official said.

“The very clear message from our partners in the region is that they want more economic engagement with the United States — they want it to be sustained, they want it to be deepened, they want it to be expanded,” Matt Murray, the ambassador-rank senior US official for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, said in an interview on Friday. 

“We hear from our APEC partners all the time, that it’s in everybody’s interest for the United States and China to have a constructive relationship,” he said. Murray said the region has been pleased with efforts at diplomatic re-engagement between the two sides after months of strained ties.

There’s very little political appetite in the US for pursuing free-trade deals — with the American public viewing foreign trade more negatively in recent years and with some members of both parties opposing deals. 

As an alternative, the Biden administration has launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF. But many Asian nations are still dismayed that the US, under President Donald Trump, withdrew from the more meaningful Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — and some, such as Japan, have publicly said they want the US back in. 

While the US is still pushing forward the IPEF negotiations, which have attracted criticism even from Democrats who view it as a threat to US workers, the Biden administration is pursuing deeper trade relations in Asia through other means, Murray said, including through the Quad grouping that includes India, Japan and Australia, as well as through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment.

“Obviously, the region wants us to be engaged economically, they want to be working with US businesses,” Murray said.