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TED2015

Kevin Rudd: Are China and the US doomed to conflict?

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The former prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd is also a longtime student of China, with a unique vantage point to watch its power rise in the past few decades. He asks whether the growing ambition of China will inevitably lead to conflict with other major powers -- and suggests another narrative.

- International relations expert
While studying future alternatives for China’s global relations, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has come to an ominous conclusion: conflict is looming. Full bio

G'day, my name's Kevin.
00:12
I'm from Australia. I'm here to help.
00:14
(Laughter)
00:17
Tonight, I want to talk about
a tale of two cities.
00:20
One of those cities is called Washington,
and the other is called Beijing.
00:24
Because how these two capitals
shape their future
00:30
and the future of the United States
and the future of China
00:36
doesn't just affect those two countries,
00:39
it affects all of us
00:41
in ways, perhaps, we've never thought of:
00:43
the air we breathe, the water we drink,
00:46
the fish we eat,
the quality of our oceans,
00:51
the languages we speak in the future,
00:54
the jobs we have,
the political systems we choose,
00:57
and, of course, the great questions
of war and peace.
01:00
You see that bloke? He's French.
01:06
His name is Napoleon.
01:09
A couple of hundred years ago,
01:11
he made this extraordinary projection:
01:12
"China is a sleeping lion,
and when she awakes,
01:15
the world will shake."
01:17
Napoleon got a few things wrong;
01:19
he got this one absolutely right.
01:22
Because China is today
not just woken up,
01:24
China has stood up
and China is on the march,
01:29
and the question for us all
01:32
is where will China go
01:34
and how do we engage
this giant of the 21st century?
01:36
You start looking at the numbers,
they start to confront you in a big way.
01:43
It's projected that China will become,
01:47
by whichever measure --
PPP, market exchange rates --
01:50
the largest economy in the world
01:53
over the course of the decade ahead.
01:55
They're already
the largest trading nation,
01:58
already the largest exporting nation,
02:00
already the largest manufacturing nation,
02:02
and they're also the biggest
emitters of carbon in the world.
02:04
America comes second.
02:08
So if China does become
the world's largest economy,
02:11
think about this:
02:16
It'll be the first time
02:18
since this guy was on
the throne of England --
02:21
George III, not a good friend
of Napoleon's --
02:26
that in the world we will have
as the largest economy
02:29
a non-English speaking country,
02:35
a non-Western country,
02:37
a non-liberal democratic country.
02:39
And if you don't think
that's going to affect
02:42
the way in which the world
happens in the future,
02:44
then personally, I think
you've been smoking something,
02:47
and it doesn't mean you're from Colorado.
02:50
So in short, the question
we have tonight is,
02:54
how do we understand this mega-change,
02:57
which I believe to be the biggest change
for the first half of the 21st century?
03:00
It'll affect so many things.
03:05
It will go to the absolute core.
03:08
It's happening quietly.
It's happening persistently.
03:10
It's happening in some senses
under the radar,
03:12
as we are all preoccupied with
03:15
what's going in Ukraine,
what's going on in the Middle East,
03:17
what's going on with ISIS,
what's going on with ISIL,
03:19
what's happening with
the future of our economies.
03:22
This is a slow and quiet revolution.
03:25
And with a mega-change
comes also a mega-challenge,
03:29
and the mega-challenge is this:
03:35
Can these two great countries,
03:37
China and the United States --
03:39
China,
03:41
the Middle Kingdom,
03:47
and the United States,
03:49
Měiguó --
03:54
which in Chinese, by the way,
means "the beautiful country."
03:57
Think about that -- that's the name
that China has given this country
04:00
for more than a hundred years.
04:04
Whether these two great civilizations,
these two great countries,
04:06
can in fact carve out a common future
04:09
for themselves and for the world?
04:14
In short, can we carve out a future
04:16
which is peaceful and mutually prosperous,
04:19
or are we looking at a great challenge
04:23
of war or peace?
04:24
And I have 15 minutes
to work through war or peace,
04:27
which is a little less time
04:29
than they gave this guy to write a book
called "War and Peace."
04:33
People ask me, why is it that a kid
growing up in rural Australia
04:38
got interested in learning Chinese?
04:42
Well, there are two reasons for that.
04:44
Here's the first of them.
04:46
That's Betsy the cow.
04:47
Now, Betsy the cow was one
of a herd of dairy cattle
04:49
that I grew up with on a farm
in rural Australia.
04:53
See those hands there?
These are not built for farming.
04:57
So very early on, I discovered
that in fact, working in a farm
05:00
was not designed for me,
and China was a very safe remove
05:04
from any career in Australian farm life.
05:07
Here's the second reason.
05:10
That's my mom.
05:12
Anyone here ever listen
to what their mom told them to do?
05:12
Everyone ever do what
their mom told them to do?
05:15
I rarely did,
05:18
but what my mom said to me was,
05:20
one day, she handed me a newspaper,
05:22
a headline which said,
here we have a huge change.
05:25
And that change is China
entering the United Nations.
05:30
1971, I had just turned 14 years of age,
05:36
and she handed me this headline.
05:39
And she said, "Understand this,
learn this,
05:41
because it's going to affect your future."
05:43
So being a very good student of history,
05:46
I decided that the best thing
for me to do was, in fact,
05:50
to go off and learn Chinese.
05:53
The great thing about learning Chinese
05:55
is that your Chinese teacher
gives you a new name.
05:57
And so they gave me this name:
06:00
Kè, which means to overcome or to conquer,
06:03
and Wén, and that's the character
for literature or the arts.
06:08
Kè Wén, Conqueror of the Classics.
06:13
Any of you guys called "Kevin"?
06:17
It's a major lift from being called Kevin
to be called Conqueror of the Classics.
06:20
(Laughter)
06:24
I've been called Kevin all my life.
06:25
Have you been called Kevin all your life?
06:27
Would you prefer to be called
Conqueror of the Classics?
06:29
And so I went off after that
and joined the Australian Foreign Service,
06:32
but here is where pride -- before pride,
there always comes a fall.
06:36
So there I am in the embassy in Beijing,
06:43
off to the Great Hall of the People
06:45
with our ambassador, who had asked me
to interpret for his first meeting
06:47
in the Great Hall of the People.
06:51
And so there was I.
06:53
If you've been to a Chinese meeting,
it's a giant horseshoe.
06:54
At the head of the horsehoe
are the really serious pooh-bahs,
06:57
and down the end of the horseshoe
are the not-so-serious pooh-bahs,
07:00
the junior woodchucks like me.
07:03
And so the ambassador
began with this inelegant phrase.
07:05
He said, "China and Australia
are currently enjoying a relationship
07:08
of unprecedented closeness."
07:13
And I thought to myself,
07:16
"That sounds clumsy. That sounds odd.
07:18
I will improve it."
07:22
Note to file: Never do that.
07:24
It needed to be a little more elegant,
a little more classical,
07:27
so I rendered it as follows.
07:30
[In Chinese]
07:32
There was a big pause
on the other side of the room.
07:37
You could see the giant pooh-bahs
at the head of the horseshoe,
07:40
the blood visibly draining
from their faces,
07:44
and the junior woodchucks
at the other end of the horseshoe
07:47
engaged in peals of
unrestrained laughter.
07:50
Because when I rendered his sentence,
07:53
"Australia and China are
enjoying a relationship
07:55
of unprecedented closeness,"
07:57
in fact, what I said was that
Australia and China
07:59
were now experiencing fantastic orgasm.
08:02
(Laughter)
08:05
That was the last time
I was asked to interpret.
08:11
But in that little story,
there's a wisdom, which is,
08:15
as soon as you think you know something
about this extraordinary civilization
08:17
of 5,000 years of continuing history,
08:21
there's always something new to learn.
08:23
History is against us
08:27
when it comes to the U.S. and China
08:29
forging a common future together.
08:31
This guy up here?
08:34
He's not Chinese and he's not American.
08:35
He's Greek. His name's Thucydides.
08:37
He wrote the history
of the Peloponnesian Wars.
08:39
And he made this extraordinary observation
08:42
about Athens and Sparta.
08:45
"It was the rise of Athens
and the fear that this inspired in Sparta
08:47
that made war inevitable."
08:50
And hence, a whole literature about
something called the Thucydides Trap.
08:52
This guy here? He's not American
and he's not Greek. He's Chinese.
08:57
His name is Sun Tzu.
He wrote "The Art of War,"
09:01
and if you see his statement underneath,
it's along these lines:
09:03
"Attack him where he is unprepared,
appear where you are not expected."
09:07
Not looking good so far
for China and the United States.
09:12
This guy is an American.
His name's Graham Allison.
09:16
In fact, he's a teacher
at the Kennedy School
09:19
over there in Boston.
09:21
He's working on a single project
at the moment, which is,
09:23
does the Thucydides Trap
about the inevitably of war
09:26
between rising powers
and established great powers
09:29
apply to the future
of China-U.S. relations?
09:32
It's a core question.
09:35
And what Graham has done
is explore 15 cases in history
09:36
since the 1500s
09:40
to establish what the precedents are.
09:43
And in 11 out of 15 of them,
09:45
let me tell you,
09:47
they've ended in catastrophic war.
09:49
You may say, "But Kevin --
09:53
or Conqueror of the Classics --
09:56
that was the past.
09:58
We live now in a world
of interdependence and globalization.
10:00
It could never happen again."
10:04
Guess what?
10:05
The economic historians
tell us that in fact,
10:06
the time which we reached
the greatest point
10:09
of economic integration and globalization
10:11
was in 1914,
10:14
just before that happened, World War I,
10:17
a sobering reflection from history.
10:21
So if we are engaged
in this great question
10:24
of how China thinks, feels,
10:27
and positions itself
towards the United States,
10:30
and the reverse,
10:34
how do we get to the baseline
10:35
of how these two countries
and civilizations
10:37
can possibly work together?
10:40
Let me first go to, in fact,
10:43
China's views of the U.S.
and the rest of the West.
10:46
Number one: China feels
as if it's been humiliated
10:48
at the hands of the West
through a hundred years of history,
10:51
beginning with the Opium Wars.
10:54
When after that, the Western powers
carved China up into little pieces,
10:56
so that by the time
it got to the '20s and '30s,
11:00
signs like this one appeared
on the streets of Shanghai.
11:02
["No dogs and Chinese allowed"]
11:05
How would you feel if you were Chinese,
11:06
in your own country,
if you saw that sign appear?
11:08
China also believes and feels
11:11
as if, in the events of 1919,
at the Peace Conference in Paris,
11:15
when Germany's colonies were given back
11:20
to all sorts of countries
around in the world,
11:21
what about German colonies in China?
11:24
They were, in fact, given to Japan.
11:25
When Japan then invaded China in the 1930s
11:28
the world looked away and was indifferent
to what would happen to China.
11:32
And then, on top of that,
the Chinese to this day believe
11:36
that the United States and the West
11:39
do not accept the legitimacy
of their political system
11:40
because it's so radically different
from those of us who come
11:43
from liberal democracies,
11:46
and believe that the United States
to this day is seeking
11:47
to undermine their political system.
11:50
China also believes
that it is being contained
11:52
by U.S. allies and by those
with strategic partnerships with the U.S.
11:55
right around its periphery.
12:00
And beyond all that,
the Chinese have this feeling
12:03
in their heart of hearts
and in their gut of guts
12:05
that those of us in the collective West
12:08
are just too damned arrogant.
12:13
That is, we don't recognize
the problems in our own system,
12:16
in our politics and our economics,
12:20
and are very quick
to point the finger elsewhere,
12:22
and believe that, in fact,
we in the collective West
12:25
are guilty of a great bunch of hypocrisy.
12:28
Of course, in international relations,
12:32
it's not just the sound
of one hand clapping.
12:36
There's another country too,
and that's called the U.S.
12:40
So how does the U.S.
respond to all of the above?
12:42
The U.S. has a response to each of those.
12:45
On the question of
is the U.S. containing China,
12:47
they say, "No, look at the history of
the Soviet Union. That was containment."
12:49
Instead, what we have done
in the U.S. and the West
12:53
is welcome China
into the global economy,
12:55
and on top of that, welcome them
into the World Trade Organization.
12:57
The U.S. and the West say China cheats
13:01
on the question
of intellectual property rights,
13:03
and through cyberattacks
on U.S. and global firms.
13:05
Furthermore, the United States
says that the Chinese political system
13:09
is fundamentally wrong
13:13
because it's at such fundamental variance
13:16
to the human rights, democracy,
and rule of law that we enjoy
13:19
in the U.S. and the collective West.
13:22
And on top of all the above,
what does the United States say?
13:25
That they fear that China will,
when it has sufficient power,
13:28
establish a sphere of influence
in Southeast Asia and wider East Asia,
13:33
boot the United States out,
13:37
and in time, when it's powerful enough,
13:39
unilaterally seek to change
the rules of the global order.
13:41
So apart from all of that,
it's just fine and dandy,
13:45
the U.S.-China relationship.
13:48
No real problems there.
13:49
The challenge, though,
is given those deep-rooted feelings,
13:52
those deep-rooted emotions
and thought patterns,
13:56
what the Chinese call "Sīwéi,"
ways of thinking,
13:59
how can we craft a basis
for a common future between these two?
14:02
I argue simply this:
14:07
We can do it on the basis on a framework
14:08
of constructive realism
for a common purpose.
14:10
What do I mean by that?
14:15
Be realistic about the things
that we disagree on,
14:17
and a management approach
that doesn't enable
14:19
any one of those differences
to break into war or conflict
14:21
until we've acquired
the diplomatic skills to solve them.
14:24
Be constructive in areas of the
bilateral, regional and global engagement
14:28
between the two,
14:32
which will make a difference
for all of humankind.
14:33
Build a regional institution
capable of cooperation in Asia,
14:36
an Asia-Pacific community.
14:40
And worldwide, act further,
14:42
like you've begun to do
at the end of last year
14:44
by striking out against climate change
14:47
with hands joined together
rather than fists apart.
14:49
Of course, all that happens
if you've got a common mechanism
14:53
and political will to achieve the above.
14:56
These things are deliverable.
14:58
But the question is,
are they deliverable alone?
15:01
This is what our head
tells us we need to do,
15:05
but what about our heart?
15:07
I have a little experience
in the question back home
15:09
of how you try to bring
together two peoples
15:12
who, frankly, haven't had
a whole lot in common in the past.
15:16
And that's when I apologized
to Australia's indigenous peoples.
15:19
This was a day of reckoning
in the Australian government,
15:23
the Australian parliament,
and for the Australian people.
15:27
After 200 years of unbridled abuse
towards the first Australians,
15:29
it was high time that we white folks
said we were sorry.
15:34
The important thing --
15:39
(Applause)
15:41
The important thing that I remember
is staring in the faces
15:46
of all those from Aboriginal Australia
15:49
as they came to listen to this apology.
15:51
It was extraordinary to see, for example,
15:54
old women telling me the stories
of when they were five years old
15:58
and literally ripped away
from their parents,
16:02
like this lady here.
16:05
It was extraordinary for me
to then be able to embrace
16:06
and to kiss Aboriginal elders
as they came into the parliament building,
16:10
and one woman said to me,
16:14
it's the first time a white fella
had ever kissed her in her life,
16:16
and she was over 70.
16:19
That's a terrible story.
16:21
And then I remember
this family saying to me,
16:23
"You know, we drove all the way
from the far North down to Canberra
16:26
to come to this thing,
16:30
drove our way through redneck country.
16:31
On the way back, stopped at a cafe
after the apology for a milkshake."
16:33
And they walked into this cafe
quietly, tentatively, gingerly,
16:40
a little anxious.
16:46
I think you know what I'm talking about.
16:47
But the day after the apology,
what happened?
16:50
Everyone in that cafe,
every one of the white folks,
16:53
stood up and applauded.
16:57
Something had happened in the hearts
of these people in Australia.
17:00
The white folks, our Aboriginal
brothers and sisters,
17:05
and we haven't solved
all these problems together,
17:08
but let me tell you,
there was a new beginning
17:11
because we had gone not just to the head,
17:15
we'd gone also to the heart.
17:17
So where does that conclude
in terms of the great question
17:20
that we've been asked
to address this evening,
17:23
which is the future
of U.S.-China relations?
17:25
The head says there's a way forward.
17:28
The head says there is a policy framework,
there's a common narrative,
17:30
there's a mechanism
through regular summitry
17:34
to do these things
and to make them better.
17:36
But the heart must also find a way
to reimagine the possibilities
17:38
of the America-China relationship,
17:43
and the possibilities of China's
future engagement in the world.
17:45
Sometimes, folks, we just need
to take a leap of faith
17:49
not quite knowing where we might land.
17:55
In China, they now talk about
the Chinese Dream.
17:59
In America, we're all familiar
with the term "the American Dream."
18:03
I think it's time, across the world,
18:09
that we're able to think also
of something we might also call
18:12
a dream for all humankind.
18:17
Because if we do that,
18:23
we might just change the way
18:25
that we think about each other.
18:27
[In Chinese]
18:35
That's my challenge to America.
That's my challenge to China.
18:39
That's my challenge to all of us,
18:42
but I think where there's a will
and where there is imagination
18:44
we can turn this into a future
18:48
driven by peace and prosperity
18:50
and not once again repeat
18:52
the tragedies of war.
18:54
I thank you.
18:56
(Applause)
18:58
Chris Anderson: Thanks so much for that.
Thanks so much for that.
19:03
It feels like you yourself
have a role to play in this bridging.
19:07
You, in a way, are uniquely placed
to speak to both sides.
19:11
Kevin Rudd: Well, what we Australians
do best is organize the drinks,
19:16
so you get them together in one room,
and we suggest this and suggest that,
19:19
then we go and get the drinks.
19:22
But no, look, for all of us
who are friends
19:24
of these two great countries,
America and China,
19:26
you can do something.
19:28
You can make a practical contribution,
19:29
and for all you good folks here,
19:32
next time you meet someone from China,
19:34
sit down and have a conversation.
19:35
See what you can find out about
where they come from and what they think,
19:37
and my challenge for all
the Chinese folks
19:40
who are going to watch
this TED Talk at some time
19:42
is do the same.
19:45
Two of us seeking to change the world
can actually make a huge difference.
19:47
Those of us up the middle,
we can make a small contribution.
19:51
CA: Kevin, all power to you,
my friend. Thank you.
19:54
KR: Thank you. Thank you, folks.
19:56
(Applause)
19:58

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About the speaker:

Kevin Rudd - International relations expert
While studying future alternatives for China’s global relations, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has come to an ominous conclusion: conflict is looming.

Why you should listen

Drawing on a deep knowledge of Chinese culture, language and history (and as a Senior Fellow with Harvard’s Belfer Center), Kevin Rudd and his colleagues study alternate courses for US-China relations that guide us away from a seemingly inevitable confrontation. As Prime Minister during the global financial crisis (and as one of the founders of the G20), Rudd helped keep Australia out of recession with a stimulus strategy lauded by the IMF as exemplary among its member states. Rudd is also President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank specializing in Asian affairs.

In March 2015, Rudd published "China under Xi Jinping: Alternative Futures for U.S.-China Relations," a series of three addresses on American and Chinese values, perceptions, interests, and strategic intentions, and their impact on the possibility of developing a common narrative for U.S.-China relations for the future.

More profile about the speaker
Kevin Rudd | Speaker | TED.com