Are China and the US Doomed to Conflict?


By Kevin Rudd

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has come to an ominous conclusion: conflict is looming.

Kevin Rudd is 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.

Posted July 21, 2015

Hat Tip to RBHoughton  for bringing this to our attention.


0:11 G’day, my name’s Kevin. I’m from Australia. I’m here to help. (Laughter)

0:19 Tonight, I want to talk about a tale of two cities. One of those cities is called Washington, and the other is called Beijing.Because how these two capitals shape their future and the future of the United States and the future of China doesn’t just affect those two countries, it affects all of us in ways, perhaps, we’ve never thought of: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fish we eat, the quality of our oceans, the languages we speak in the future, the jobs we have, the political systems we choose, and, of course, the great questions of war and peace.

1:05 You see that bloke? He’s French. His name is Napoleon. A couple of hundred years ago, he made this extraordinary projection:“China is a sleeping lion, and when she awakes, the world will shake.” Napoleon got a few things wrong; he got this one absolutely right. Because China is today not just woken up, China has stood up and China is on the march, and the question for us all is where will China go and how do we engage this giant of the 21st century?

1:42 You start looking at the numbers, they start to confront you in a big way. It’s projected that China will become, by whichever measure — PPP, market exchange rates — the largest economy in the world over the course of the decade ahead. They’re already the largest trading nation, already the largest exporting nation, already the largest manufacturing nation, and they’re also the biggest emitters of carbon in the world. America comes second.

2:10 So if China does become the world’s largest economy, think about this: It’ll be the first time since this guy was on the throne of England — George III, not a good friend of Napoleon’s — that in the world we will have as the largest economy a non-English speaking country, a non-Western country, a non-liberal democratic country. And if you don’t think that’s going to affect the way in which the world happens in the future, then personally, I think you’ve been smoking something, and it doesn’t mean you’re from Colorado.

2:53 So in short, the question we have tonight is, how do we understand this mega-change, which I believe to be the biggest change for the first half of the 21st century? It’ll affect so many things. It will go to the absolute core. It’s happening quietly. It’s happening persistently. It’s happening in some senses under the radar, as we are all preoccupied with what’s going in Ukraine, what’s going on in the Middle East, what’s going on with ISIS, what’s going on with ISIL, what’s happening with the future of our economies. This is a slow and quiet revolution. And with a mega-change comes also a mega-challenge, and the mega-challenge is this: Can these two great countries, China and the United States — China, the Middle Kingdom, and the United States, Měiguó — which in Chinese, by the way, means “the beautiful country.” Think about that — that’s the name that China has given this country for more than a hundred years. Whether these two great civilizations, these two great countries, can in fact carve out a common future for themselves and for the world? In short, can we carve out a future which is peaceful and mutually prosperous, or are we looking at a great challenge of war or peace? And I have 15 minutes to work through war or peace, which is a little less time than they gave this guy to write a book called “War and Peace.”

4:37 People ask me, why is it that a kid growing up in rural Australia got interested in learning Chinese? Well, there are two reasons for that. Here’s the first of them. That’s Betsy the cow. Now, Betsy the cow was one of a herd of dairy cattle that I grew up with on a farm in rural Australia. See those hands there? These are not built for farming. So very early on, I discovered that in fact, working in a farm was not designed for me, and China was a very safe remove from any career in Australian farm life.

5:09 Here’s the second reason. That’s my mom. Anyone here ever listen to what their mom told them to do? Everyone ever do what their mom told them to do? I rarely did, but what my mom said to me was, one day, she handed me a newspaper, a headline which said, here we have a huge change. And that change is China entering the United Nations. 1971, I had just turned 14 years of age, and she handed me this headline. And she said, “Understand this, learn this, because it’s going to affect your future.”

5:45 So being a very good student of history, I decided that the best thing for me to do was, in fact, to go off and learn Chinese. The great thing about learning Chinese is that your Chinese teacher gives you a new name. And so they gave me this name: Kè, which means to overcome or to conquer, and Wén, and that’s the character for literature or the arts. Kè Wén, Conqueror of the Classics. Any of you guys called “Kevin”? It’s a major lift from being called Kevin to be called Conqueror of the Classics. (Laughter) I’ve been called Kevin all my life. Have you been called Kevin all your life? Would you prefer to be called Conqueror of the Classics?

6:31 And so I went off after that and joined the Australian Foreign Service, but here is where pride — before pride, there always comes a fall. So there I am in the embassy in Beijing, off to the Great Hall of the People with our ambassador, who had asked me to interpret for his first meeting in the Great Hall of the People. And so there was I. If you’ve been to a Chinese meeting, it’s a giant horseshoe. At the head of the horsehoe are the really serious pooh-bahs, and down the end of the horseshoe are the not-so-serious pooh-bahs, the junior woodchucks like me. And so the ambassador began with this inelegant phrase. He said, “China and Australia are currently enjoying a relationship of unprecedented closeness.” And I thought to myself, “That sounds clumsy. That sounds odd. I will improve it.” Note to file: Never do that. It needed to be a little more elegant, a little more classical, so I rendered it as follows. [In Chinese]

7:36 There was a big pause on the other side of the room. You could see the giant pooh-bahs at the head of the horseshoe, the blood visibly draining from their faces, and the junior woodchucks at the other end of the horseshoe engaged in peals of unrestrained laughter. Because when I rendered his sentence, “Australia and China are enjoying a relationship of unprecedented closeness,” in fact, what I said was that Australia and China were now experiencing fantastic orgasm. (Laughter)

8:10 That was the last time I was asked to interpret. But in that little story, there’s a wisdom, which is, as soon as you think you know something about this extraordinary civilization of 5,000 years of continuing history, there’s always something new to learn.

8:26 History is against us when it comes to the U.S. and China forging a common future together. This guy up here? He’s not Chinese and he’s not American. He’s Greek. His name’s Thucydides. He wrote the history of the Peloponnesian Wars. And he made this extraordinary observation about Athens and Sparta. “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” And hence, a whole literature about something called the Thucydides Trap.

8:56 This guy here? He’s not American and he’s not Greek. He’s Chinese. His name is Sun Tzu. He wrote “The Art of War,” and if you see his statement underneath, it’s along these lines: “Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” Not looking good so far for China and the United States.

9:15 This guy is an American. His name’s Graham Allison. In fact, he’s a teacher at the Kennedy School over there in Boston. He’s working on a single project at the moment, which is, does the Thucydides Trap about the inevitably of war between rising powers and established great powers apply to the future of China-U.S. relations? It’s a core question. And what Graham has done is explore 15 cases in history since the 1500s to establish what the precedents are. And in 11 out of 15 of them, let me tell you, they’ve ended in catastrophic war.

9:52 You may say, “But Kevin — or Conqueror of the Classics — that was the past. We live now in a world of interdependence and globalization. It could never happen again.” Guess what? The economic historians tell us that in fact, the time which we reached the greatest point of economic integration and globalization was in 1914, just before that happened, World War I, a sobering reflection from history.

10:23 So if we are engaged in this great question of how China thinks, feels, and positions itself towards the United States, and the reverse, how do we get to the baseline of how these two countries and civilizations can possibly work together?

10:42 Let me first go to, in fact, China’s views of the U.S. and the rest of the West. Number one: China feels as if it’s been humiliatedat the hands of the West through a hundred years of history, beginning with the Opium Wars. When after that, the Western powers carved China up into little pieces, so that by the time it got to the ’20s and ’30s, signs like this one appeared on the streets of Shanghai. [“No dogs and Chinese allowed”] How would you feel if you were Chinese, in your own country, if you saw that sign appear? China also believes and feels as if, in the events of 1919, at the Peace Conference in Paris, when Germany’s colonies were given back to all sorts of countries around in the world, what about German colonies in China? They were, in fact, given to Japan.When Japan then invaded China in the 1930s the world looked away and was indifferent to what would happen to China. And then, on top of that, the Chinese to this day believe that the United States and the West do not accept the legitimacy of their political system because it’s so radically different from those of us who come from liberal democracies, and believe that the United States to this day is seeking to undermine their political system. China also believes that it is being contained by U.S. allies and by those with strategic partnerships with the U.S. right around its periphery. And beyond all that, the Chinese have this feeling in their heart of hearts and in their gut of guts that those of us in the collective West are just too damned arrogant. That is, we don’t recognize the problems in our own system, in our politics and our economics, and are very quick to point the finger elsewhere, and believe that, in fact, we in the collective West are guilty of a great bunch of hypocrisy.

12:31 Of course, in international relations, it’s not just the sound of one hand clapping. There’s another country too, and that’s called the U.S. So how does the U.S. respond to all of the above? The U.S. has a response to each of those. On the question of is the U.S. containing China, they say, “No, look at the history of the Soviet Union. That was containment.” Instead, what we have done in the U.S. and the West is welcome China into the global economy, and on top of that, welcome them into the World Trade Organization.The U.S. and the West say China cheats on the question of intellectual property rights, and through cyberattacks on U.S. and global firms. Furthermore, the United States says that the Chinese political system is fundamentally wrong because it’s at such fundamental variance to the human rights, democracy, and rule of law that we enjoy in the U.S. and the collective West. And on top of all the above, what does the United States say? That they fear that China will, when it has sufficient power, establish a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia and wider East Asia, boot the United States out, and in time, when it’s powerful enough, unilaterally seek to change the rules of the global order.

13:44 So apart from all of that, it’s just fine and dandy, the U.S.-China relationship. No real problems there. The challenge, though, is given those deep-rooted feelings, those deep-rooted emotions and thought patterns, what the Chinese call “Sīwéi,” ways of thinking,how can we craft a basis for a common future between these two?

14:06 I argue simply this: We can do it on the basis on a framework of constructive realism for a common purpose. What do I mean by that? Be realistic about the things that we disagree on, and a management approach that doesn’t enable any one of those differences to break into war or conflict until we’ve acquired the diplomatic skills to solve them. Be constructive in areas of the bilateral, regional and global engagement between the two, which will make a difference for all of humankind. Build a regional institution capable of cooperation in Asia, an Asia-Pacific community. And worldwide, act further, like you’ve begun to do at the end of last year by striking out against climate change with hands joined together rather than fists apart.

14:52 Of course, all that happens if you’ve got a common mechanism and political will to achieve the above. These things are deliverable. But the question is, are they deliverable alone? This is what our head tells us we need to do, but what about our heart?

15:08 I have a little experience in the question back home of how you try to bring together two peoples who, frankly, haven’t had a whole lot in common in the past. And that’s when I apologized to Australia’s indigenous peoples. This was a day of reckoning in the Australian government, the Australian parliament, and for the Australian people. After 200 years of unbridled abuse towards the first Australians, it was high time that we white folks said we were sorry.

15:38 The important thing — (Applause)

15:45 The important thing that I remember is staring in the faces of all those from Aboriginal Australia as they came to listen to this apology. It was extraordinary to see, for example, old women telling me the stories of when they were five years old and literally ripped away from their parents, like this lady here. It was extraordinary for me to then be able to embrace and to kiss Aboriginal elders as they came into the parliament building, and one woman said to me, it’s the first time a white fella had ever kissed her in her life, and she was over 70. That’s a terrible story.

16:22 And then I remember this family saying to me, “You know, we drove all the way from the far North down to Canberra to come to this thing, drove our way through redneck country. On the way back, stopped at a cafe after the apology for a milkshake.” And they walked into this cafe quietly, tentatively, gingerly, a little anxious. I think you know what I’m talking about. But the day after the apology, what happened? Everyone in that cafe, every one of the white folks, stood up and applauded. Something had happened in the hearts of these people in Australia. The white folks, our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and we haven’t solved all these problems together, but let me tell you, there was a new beginning because we had gone not just to the head, we’d gone also to the heart.

17:19 So where does that conclude in terms of the great question that we’ve been asked to address this evening, which is the future of U.S.-China relations? The head says there’s a way forward. The head says there is a policy framework, there’s a common narrative,there’s a mechanism through regular summitry to do these things and to make them better. But the heart must also find a way to reimagine the possibilities of the America-China relationship, and the possibilities of China’s future engagement in the world.Sometimes, folks, we just need to take a leap of faith not quite knowing where we might land.

17:58 In China, they now talk about the Chinese Dream. In America, we’re all familiar with the term “the American Dream.” I think it’s time, across the world, that we’re able to think also of something we might also call a dream for all humankind. Because if we do that, we might just change the way that we think about each other.

18:34 [In Chinese]

18:38 That’s my challenge to America. That’s my challenge to China. That’s my challenge to all of us, but I think where there’s a will and where there is imagination we can turn this into a future driven by peace and prosperity and not once again repeat the tragedies of war.

18:55 I thank you.

18:57 (Applause)

19:02 Chris Anderson: Thanks so much for that. Thanks so much for that. It feels like you yourself have a role to play in this bridging. You, in a way, are uniquely placed to speak to both sides.

19:15 Kevin Rudd: Well, what we Australians do best is organize the drinks, so you get them together in one room, and we suggest this and suggest that, then we go and get the drinks. But no, look, for all of us who are friends of these two great countries, America and China, you can do something. You can make a practical contribution, and for all you good folks here, next time you meet someone from China, sit down and have a conversation. See what you can find out about where they come from and what they think,and my challenge for all the Chinese folks who are going to watch this TED Talk at some time is do the same. Two of us seeking to change the world can actually make a huge difference. Those of us up the middle, we can make a small contribution.

19:53 CA: Kevin, all power to you, my friend. Thank you.

19:55 KR: Thank you. Thank you, folks.

19:57 (Applause)

See also –

China under Xi Jinping: Alternative Futures for U.S.-China Relations,”

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