Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in a philosophical frame of mind this week, as she surveyed the impasse between the United States and China on a daunting range of issues.
"Our two nations," she said, "are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet." As the secretary's fifth trip to China demonstrated, that is proving to be a complicated process.
Mrs. Clinton and Chinese officials failed to agree on two big items on her agenda: defusing tensions in the South China Sea and ending President Bashar Assad's violent rampage in Syria. The result was disappointing but not unexpected, when both countries have other things on their minds.
China's leaders are embroiled in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition as well as political scandals in the Communist Party. The United States is preoccupied with a presidential campaign.
Still, Mrs. Clinton was right to press for common ground. Bounded by some of Asia's most vibrant economies -- China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia -- the South China Sea has become a free-for-all. Nations assert claims to islands and even specks of rock.
China has been the most aggressive, but other counties share blame. Confrontations over territorial control and undersea resources could get out of hand.
China should see the value in looking for ways to ensure regional stability. But it too has worries, particularly about the Obama Administration's more assertive presence in Asia, which includes strengthening military ties with Australia and the Philippines.
That is one reason the United States must balance firmness toward China with a willingness to work together. China's refusal to support tough United Nations Security Council sanctions against Mr. Assad is unconscionable.
Chinese officials say they adhere to the principle of not interfering in the affairs of other countries. They ignore the fact that their stubbornness has helped prolong the conflict in which more than 20,000 Syrians have been killed.
Echoing Mrs. Clinton, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi said Beijing would work with Washington to build a "new type of major-country relationship." The two countries at least have gotten the words right.
-- New York Times