Watch Kevin Rudd's TED Talk: How China and the US Can Achieve a 'Dream for All'

“Can we carve out a future which is peaceful and mutually prosperous, or are we looking at a great challenge of war or peace?” That was the bold question about China-U.S. relations, and the future of the world, that Kevin Rudd, President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, explored in a talk that opened the TED2015 conference on March 16.

On April 16, ASPI will host a special AsiaConnect teleconference with Kevin Rudd discussing his thoughts on alternative futures for the U.S.-China relationship, based on his forthcoming report for the Harvard Kennedy School.

“How [Beijing and Washington] 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,” Rudd said.

Relations between the U.S. and China, Rudd said, will play out against a history of misunderstanding and distrust and a contemporary background of dramatic change, as China emerges as a world power capable of rivaling the United States. But the future of U.S.-China relations can be different — and better for the world, Rudd said.

“How can we craft a basis for a common future between these two?” asked Rudd. “I argue simply this: we can do it on the basis of a framework of constructive realism for a common purpose.”

Such a framework, Rudd explained, would allow the U.S. and China to “be realistic about the things that [they] disagree on” and keep those matters from sparking conflict or otherwise harming the relationship. Even though the U.S. and China can’t resolve all their differences in the short term, they can still “be constructive in areas of the bilateral, regional, and global engagement between the two.” If they can do that, then they can realize “a dream for all humankind.”

Below are more key points from Rudd’s TED talk, which you can watch in the video player above.

China’s history-making economy: Credible forecasts suggest that China will surpass the U.S. as the largest economy in the world within the next 10 years. When that “mega-change” happens, Rudd said, it will be the first time since the 18th-century reign of King George III that the world’s largest economy will belong to a non-Western country with an undemocratic political system and a national language other than English. Rudd borrowed a quotation from Napoleon Bonaparte — also cited by President Xi Jinping of China in March 2014 — to characterize China’s emergence: “China is a sleeping lion, and when she awakes, the world will shake,” said Rudd.

When an emerging power meets an established power: The bad news, according to Rudd, is that “history is against us when it comes to the U.S. and China forging a common future together.” Rudd described analysis by Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, showing that 11 of the 15 encounters between a rising power and a ruling power since 1500 have ended in “catastrophic war.” Allison calls this phenomenon the Thucydides Trap, after the ancient historian who wrote about the epic Peloponnesian War between upstart Athens and established Sparta.

Daring to dream: Rudd argued that now is the time for the U.S. and China to recognize how profoundly their relationship will affect global well-being, and together move beyond the familiar notion of the American dream and Xi’s newer idea of a “Chinese dream.” Echoing the theme of TED2015, “Truth and Dare,” Rudd said, “Sometimes, folks, we just need to take a leap of faith, not quite knowing where we might land.”

About the Author

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Joshua Rosenfield is Director of Content Strategy with the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is based in New York.