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Asia Society Australia and the National Library of Australia have partnered to present a program of high-level thought leadership events on China during the groundbreaking exhibtion, Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911.

In this first event, Josette Sheeran—the seventh president and CEO of Asia Society—will discuss how China’s ascendency is transforming the global order.


Josette Sheeran is responsible for leading and advancing Asia Society’s work throughout the U.S., Australia, Asia and Europe, and across the disciplines of arts and culture, policy and business, and education. She is an outstanding global leader who previously served as the Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum, head of the UN World Food Programme, and the Deputy US Trade Representative.

Sheeran is former Vice Chair of the World Economic Forum, which hosts the annual Davos and Davos in China gathering of world leaders. In this position, she helped advance global initiatives and global, regional and industry agendas such as Grow Africa, which has attracted $4 billion in investment commitments to end hunger and malnutrition in Africa. She recently served at the Harvard Kennedy School as a Fisher Fellow in the Future of Diplomacy.

Prior to her tenure at the World Economic Forum, Sheeran was executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006. There she was responsible for managing the world's largest humanitarian organization, leading a team of 13,000 people in more than 70 countries, and managing an annual budget of more than $3 billion — including $1 billion in Asia.

Under Sheeran's leadership, the WFP increased its donor base to more than 100 nations, and became the first global institution to include the so-called BRIC countries and the Gulf States among its top 10 donors. She put in place historic reforms of food aid, helping cut the cycle of hunger and malnutrition by purchasing nutritious food directly from developing world farmers. She also instituted emergency protocols that helped the WFP improve its ability to save lives and livelihoods in disasters and emergencies, most notably in Pakistan, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Haiti and in the Horn of Africa.

Sheeran has held senior positions in the U.S. government, and in those positions she conducted high-level diplomacy with virtually every nation in Asia. As U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs, she led new State Department initiatives which supported economic transformation and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Central Asia and with APEC and ASEAN. Earlier she served for five years as deputy U.S. trade representative, conducting negotiations across Asia, including with China, Australia, Singapore, India, Korea, and Japan.

In 2011, Forbes named Sheeran the world's 30th most powerful woman; Foreign Policy has listed her among its top 100 women on Twitter; and Sheeran's TED Talk on ending world hunger has been viewed more than one million times.

Sheeran is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has served on its Washington Advisory Board. She has received several honors for her leadership in the fight against hunger and malnutrition: she was awarded Japan's Niigata International Food Award; named Commandeur de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the government of France; and received Brazil's highest civilian award, the Grand Official Order of the 'Rio Branco,' from President Lula Da Silva. Sheeran was also honored by the Huffington Post with its "Game Changer" award in 2011, along with Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and economist Esther Duflo. 

Asia Society is a global non-profit organization and the leading force in forging closer ties between Asia and the West through arts, education, policy and business. Across the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, Asia Society provides insight, generates ideas, and promotes collaboration to address present challenges and create a shared future. Learn more about Asia Society.

Transcript of ‘China’s rise and the global order’

Speakers: Philipp Ivanov (P), Josette Sheeran (J)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 25/02/16

P:         Good afternoon. My name is Philipp Ivanov, I’m the CEO of Asia Society Australia. Welcome to our event today on China’s rise and the global order. Very good to see all our friends and partners from Canberra and it’s a very special event for us, we haven’t done a public event in Canberra for quite a while but we have been in Australia for over 20 years and it’s ... this year is 60 years since Asia Society was established by John D Rockefeller III in New York originally. So first of all welcome to all our members and advisory council, Bill Farmer, very welcome, Bill, and all our corporate and individual members, Friends of the National Library of Australia and our partners and students and the new generation of China and Asia watchers.

Today our conversation is about China’s rise and its impact on the global order and I would love to claim that we timed this event to coincide with the release of the defence white paper, great timing. Coincidence or not, if you look at the headlines you can see already China is in fact transforming not just global but definitely Australian order in our security calculations. So today’s conversation and this event is very special for many reasons, first of all it’s because our guest speaker is a truly global leader, Josette Sheeran, CEO and President of Asia Society. It’s the event that’s done in partnership with the National Library of Australia and part of this magnificent exhibition, Celestial Empire, which I’m sure you have seen and if you haven’t seen it I strongly urge you to see it, it’s a really, really unique cultural event in Australia but also in the history of bilateral relationship with China. We’re very honoured to be associated with the Library and support this exhibition through bringing thought leadership on China as a part of the cultural project that the Library has put together so big thank you to our host today and Cathy Pilgrim from the Library for being such generous host today.

Our partnership with the Library aims to bring different aspects and facets of China, arts and culture, politics and society and business and it’s this approach that Asia Society has taken right from the beginning when it was established exactly 60 years ago. John D Rockefeller III who created Asia Society well ahead of his time has a vision of the Asian century and that’s before Julia Gillard’s white paper on the Asian century. So he created an institution that examines and connects with Asia holistically through arts, education and policy and these pillars remain the core of our work today but we have grown much bigger. We have now 12 centres in the US and Asia, including in Australia where we have been for 20 years, and now extended our footprint in Europe, and we opened our centre in Zurich last month.

Our expend in policy, art and business agenda is focused on building understanding of Asia but also connecting leaders and communities. And our special guest today, Josette, is very well qualified to lead this conversation on China and its central place in Asia. So let me go through Josette’s very extensive CV, which every time I look at it makes me feel very depressed and lazy. So Josette is seventh CEO and President of Asia Society, she commenced in her role in 2013 and [is] responsible for advancing our global agenda across arts, education, policy and business across US, Asia and Europe now. Josette is a former Vice Chair of the World Economic Forum that hosts Davos forum in Switzerland and Davos in China. Prior to that she was Executive Director of the World Food Program appointed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation and Josette managed a team of 13,000 people in more than 70 countries and managing an annual budget of more than three billion including one billion in Asia alone. Josette has held senior positions in the US government including as US Under Secretary of State of Economic Business and Agricultural Affairs and five years as Deputy US Trade Representative conducting negotiations across Asia. She helped for example to bring to fruition a successful, and landmark in a way, US and Australia Free Trade Agreement. In 2011 Forbes magazine named Josette the world’s 30th most powerful woman and foreign policy magazine has listed her among its top hundred women on Twitter so please tweet away today. Her TED talk on ending world hunger has been viewed more than one million times and this is a very, very short version of her bio so please welcome Josette Sheeran.


J:          Well good afternoon, I’m really so pleased to be here, Australia’s one of my favourite places in the world and I’ve learned that through experience on the frontlines of global humanitarian work and global diplomacy so I’m very, very happy to be here and so happy you are all here. And thank you, Cathy, we really appreciate this partnership and I know Philipp has been so excited about this exhibition and all that it represents. As Philip mentioned I had experience in the US trade office, in fact was key involved in the US Australia Free Trade Agreement, that’s when I learned all my Australianisms. I kept a list, I ended up with about 35 of them but in the middle of the negotiations a word would be said like ‘kerfuffle’ or something and I would be like is that good or bad? Does that mean we’re on a good track or a bad track and so we kind of made a list and had translation of all this. But it was really in my work at the World Food Program—which is called upon whenever disaster strikes in the world or war to make sure people don’t die from hunger we deliver about 30 billion meals a year at the frontlines of these troubled areas—that I really learnt a lot about what Australia's made from. It’s a deeply humanitarian nation, one that does not forget how the world suffered in times of war and also deeply innovative and I just want to say a public thank you because Australia helped lead the way to reform of the global food aid system to make it sure effective and efficient and I think continues to push for really a much more effective global system and I’m very proud of that association.

Today we shall explore China and the world order and my introduction to China was almost 35 years ago and it was a real eye-opener. My father went to China in 1979 to deliver a lecture on insurance law and made one call out to meet his very global daughter, globally-minded daughter and he said change your life, this is the future. A few years later as I sat in a dilapidated car behind a donkey cart on the long ride in from the very small concrete Beijing airport to the centre city I mulled that statement. I was in a stream of bicycles, a stream which would become a river and finally a raging torrent of bicycles, tens of thousands of them moving as one organism through the grey and dusty streets of the city. I stayed in the old Friendship Hotel on a tiny bed with very thin blankets. The city was in fact cloaked in grey, everyone wore the same outfits, the standard issue Mao suit and women were devoid or make-up or any accoutrements. I wandered enchanted down a maze of interlocking hutungs, convinced I would never find my way out. Women in full stoop cooked over open coal fires, choking the air with soot and I counted on my first day there five cars. This, I asked my father, is the future? He replied ‘you do not have eyes to see yet.’

I remember then and there determining that I would develop eyes to see the future. I wanted to study beneath the surface of the water the forces that were driving Asia’s rise, China’s rise and soon driving deep profound shifts in the global order. As an American I was raised with the fundamental idea that the global order wanted respect for liberty, was not just an idea but a global necessity, that it was the very thing that created the enabling environment for the era of peace and prosperity that I was raised in. Fast forward several decades when a top-ranking official ... when I was a top-ranking official in the office of the US Trade Representative and I had the amazing experience of helping finalise China’s accession to the WTO. And I remember one moment when we were debating with our Chinese counterparts the translation of a few basic terms, which is a lot of what trade negotiators must do, and one of them was ‘win–win’. And the Chinese official stopped and said I’m sorry, we have no translation for this, we have no concept of this in all of the Mandarin language. He said the closest thing we have is ‘I win, you die’. And we had a laugh at that time as we understood that this was far from the concept we needed to capture, that China and all nations had much to gain from opening to the world, that trade was not a zero sum game.

I remember how big a struggle it was to accept China into the global trading system, not just in the US where there was a deep fear of the loss of jobs and the dumping of cheap products, but also within China itself. Wasn’t all of this anathema to communism and China’s long history of trying to ward off all external influences and invading threats? This huge step by China really marked in my mind the entrance of China into the global economic order and China’s begrudging and somewhat fearful and yet bold entrance into a system it did not have a hand in creating. This was China saying we have more to gain through integration than separation after a long, many decades, where many citizens of China died from starvation, forced labour and other travails. China made one of its few conscious choices in its 5,000 years of history, to move beyond its identity as a separate, unique self-contained empire under heaven. It is this separateness that must be understood as a starting point of understanding modern-day China, I believe. There is no better starting point than this remarkable exhibition, Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644 through 1911, and we’re proud to be a partner and this really ... with the National Library of Australia and the presentation of this exhibition and this extraordinary array of illustrated texts, popular and official from the Qing dynasty. It was during this period that China achieved the height of its imperial greatness. China’s vast scale in terms of land and people far surpassed the United States and Europe combined and until the 1820s China’s GDP was bigger than that of all of Europe and the United States combined.

But as the 19th century progressed and as the imperial empires of Europe sought to tap into China’s vast wealth and scientific and technological prowess China began to suffer a series of devastating shocks striking at the very heart of its self-image and perceived place in the world and with alarming speed culminating in the century ... the decade between 1840 and 1850 the once and long mighty China lost control of its identity and its borders following a series of catastrophic interactions with western empires. The hundred years that followed, from 1840 to 1940, are referred to as the centre of humiliation and it holds deep sway in China even today with what feels like remarkably fresh wounds. This period from the opening moors to the colonisation of the most productive eastern coast of China from Manchuria, to Hong Kong, to the looting, burning and destruction of Beijing’s royal palaces, all the way up through the Nanking massacre during World War II is ever present in China’s reaction to the world and its emerging great power status today. Mao’s rise was fuelled in large measure by this, a deeply nationalistic fervour to restore China’s self-dignity and place in the world.

And indeed China’s experience during the Qing dynasty perhaps more than any other that came before it fundamentally shapes how China sees itself today. It is this ongoing quest by China to find or re-find as it were its place in this world that so drives many of the headlines you read about in your newspapers. Today we see ever escalating tensions from the South China Sea to the DMZ in Korea. The delicate post World War II balance of power in Asia is under active, if not formally acknowledged, renegotiation. It raises fundamental questions. Will China’s emergence lead to an era of cooperation and partnership or rivalry and contention? What happens when a rising power challenges spheres of influence of established powers? Is China seeking to establish economic and military dominance in Asia, a Monroe doctrine? And as China asked can America and other key nations such as Australia create the space at the regional and global level to deal with China’s legitimate economic and security interests? Would a China great power be as neutral a caretaker of the freedom of navigation so central to global prosperity?

Today the sheer scale and speed of its emergence, China is changing the strategic dynamics of the world and the world order and history has never had to deal with as rapid a shift in global economic and military power as it has with the rise of Asia and the rise of China. Let’s contemplate the speed. Just 50 years ago, in the 1960s, China had only four ambassadors around the world. Just 50 years ago, Mao dispersed all of China’s governing ministries among the provinces as a protection for what he feared and believed to be an upcoming Russian invasion. Just 50 years ago, the intelligentsia of China was exiled as forced labour into the countryside in a gruelling and deadly march toward progress that ultimately claimed the lives of tens of millions of people. And just 50 years ago, despite Mao’s deeply ideological abhorrence of the capitalist system, Mao considered rapprochement with the US as a hedge against Russian expansionism. And some 40 years ago, Deng Xiaoping—twice purged by Mao—became the leader of China, and led China into a new era of international engagement, and unleashed the power of China’s internal markets. Forty years ago this May, Australia’s first ambassador to China, Steven Fitzgerald, wrote a letter to then Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock saying, quote, ‘China is not a habit of mind for Australians, the spread of Chinese influence is a process we do not understand.’ And less than 25 years ago today, China adopted its first commercial code allowing for the establishment of private business, unleashing the entrepreneurial potential of its people. And just over 25 years ago, Tiananmen Square threatened to throw China back into isolation. And less than 20 years ago, in 1999, the US magazine, Foreign Affairs, asked, quote, ‘does China matter?’ And gave an answer: ‘not as much as you might think for a country of its size.’

The rise of Asia and China in fact requires our profound and sober consideration. It holds within it the potential for the continued expansion of the greatest era of peace and prosperity ever seen. It allows us to imagine the end of extreme poverty and hunger. It allows us to dream of a world where ideas and innovation fuel an ever more prosperous future for our children and grandchildren. But this is a scenario nations must choose and must nurture, and history is not a friend on this count. In fact, history demonstrates that we as humans are not at all very good at this and our capacity for miscalculation, and tripping from peace into war, is quite dismaying. Harvard Professor Graham Allison has studied the rise and fall of great powers and Thucydides, the Athenian historian, political philosopher and general who fought in the Peloponnesian war, and is called the father of political realism. He wrote of the war that consumed ancient Greece when the rising power, Athens, challenged the power of Sparta, concluding that such scenarios lead to war, a so-called Thucydides trap. Applying the lense of this trap on the past 500 years, he studied 16 cases of rising powers confronting established powers. Twelve have ended in war. Yes, we humans are not very good at dealing with shifts in power, and in the case of the last century this led to two world wars, and the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people.

It is really for this very reason Asia Society was established 60 years ago by John D Rockefeller III. He indeed did have eyes to see a rising Asia and its impact on the world. I have done some research and asked the question: when did this family first become interested in Asia? And in fact it takes you back to 1863 when the first John D Rockefeller, a very poor man—before he invented the oil pipeline—decided to give half his monthly salary of $23 to help hungry children in China, and this continued through the Rockefeller family through their philanthropy. His grandson, John D III, was devastated by the destruction wrought throughout his beloved Asia by three land wars. He decided to establish a pan-Asia society, one that would look after not only the relationships between east and west but also between the Asian nations themselves which he felt was very key to the Pacific part of the war, the breakdown. He had many innovative ideas including that we needed to create three pillars and that we needed to have those interact in order to build the kind of bridges that were necessary. We needed to tap into our knowledge about arts and culture, about education and policy and we needed to approach all nations, regardless of their size or status, with mutual respect.

Today we have 12 centres around the world. I spend a third of my time at our big Hong Kong centre and New York and here in Australia and they all are created and self-made within the countries and help nurture the relationship between those countries and the rest of Asia. We have done track 2 negotiations, including hosting over 40 meetings between the US and Iran just to get them to come back together for that first handshake over the course of ten years. We’re tapped also in Myanmar and other difficult places to help iron out those troubles. And this past year we’ve been hosting a dialogue honouring or questioning the 100th anniversary of World War I and asking why in that era did we miss the signals and what can we learn from that today?

As Kissinger, Henry Kissinger, stated in his book, The World Order, all ... we all need to know and absorb the history of the decade before World War I when, quote, ‘the gradual emergence of an atmosphere of suspicion and latent confrontation escalated into catastrophe.’ The leaders of Europe trapped themselves by their military planning and inability to separate the tactical from the strategic. Yet history shows us that great powers seek to maximise their power and influence but do we need to repeat history? This struggle will take place as we seek to accommodate Asia’s rise and as the challen ... as it challenges the capacity of our national, regional and global institutions to do so. Part of the challenge is that China, which was deeply self-absorbed during the crushing experiences of the great leap forward and the Cultural Revolution, was not involved in writing these rules. It has by and large adopted them but seeks to help mould them and has sought a place ... a greater place at the table.

As Kissinger asks, quote, ‘is it possible to translate divergent histories, experiences, cultures and philosophies into a common world order?’ And he reminds us that there are key elements to this balance, one being restraint, one being force and one being legitimacy. Yet today order requires much more. Order is also contingent on cooperation and strategies to confront global challenges to the common good. What we may be missing is the new paradigm of partnership. We outline clearly in our work at Asia Society the areas of contradiction and tension between China and the world and seek to encourage an active and deep management of those but also outline areas where partnership could lead to great advancements in the common good of humanity. Imagine if the leaders of the US and China announced to the world that they were joining forces to eradicate polio forever from the human experience? There are many challenges that the US and China united … we could actually tackle these challenges successfully: climate change, malnutrition, trafficking in persons. Many of these issues would result in a paradigm shift for the good. And perhaps inspire our world that these great powers can work together, not only in the kind of tensions that we’re seeing today. And yet as we’re seeing in the current US elections there’s a great temptation now for nations to pull inward and an unfortunate ambivalence toward the very international order that the US and others were so central in creating and that has been so fundamental to the very era of peace and prosperity of our time.

And we see new challenges such as the South China Sea and North Korea testing, deeply testing the new equilibrium that must be forged. North Korea is a great test case, not only for the world order but also for the visions shared by President Xi and President Obama of a new kind of great power relation, how well can this situation be handled? A key part of the foundation to ensure a future of peace and prosperity would be an unprecedented effort to build strategic understanding between governments and leaders in policy, business, art, civil organisations and beyond. On this topic allow me to borrow the wise words of Asia Society’s founder, John D Rockefeller III, who said in 1962 in Delhi, India, quote, ‘understanding seems like a simple word and idea yet we all know it to be in fact far from simple. It is the most subtle and delicate, difficult and elusive bond that can link continents and nations and even people. It strikes deeper than mere tolerance, it reaches further than mere acquaintance or formal association. It is that equality of mind and spirit whose existence is essential to true peace between nations and men and without which all designs of partnership can crumble into nothing.’

Australia emerged from the devastation of World War II with a conviction that it would play a key and active role in building a rules and rights-based international order. Indeed it has helped ... this has helped Australia keep safe and grow increasingly prosperous. Today Australia’s centre of gravity is shifting; it has a new leading trading partner in China, and Australians are debating where the compass should precisely be set. Is due north pointed towards the US and Europe or Beijing and Asia? Australia now a robust, globally connected, multicultural nation perhaps has a key role in helping the world understand how we manage Asia’s rise. What we do know is all nations must assess where we are in this shifting landscape and play their role in ensuring and nurturing the future of a rules-based order of prosperity. Today indeed we witnessed two great national libraries coming together, one in Beijing and one in Canberra, melding together each other’s treasures to present an experience of learning that promotes the understanding of a culture, heritage and life of a no longer so far away people. If the bellicose and often bloody encounters during the three centuries of the Qing dynasty were partly due to the inexperience and miscalculations as the world then dealt with emerging forces unfolding at that time we ought and must be all the wiser this time around. Thank you.

[End of recording]