The “Red Telephone” connecting world leaders is the modern epitome of crisis management. Yet, it might surprise most Americans to learn that, despite the increasing power of China and the potential for conflict and misunderstanding, no such working connection exists between the U.S. and China. In the past five years, the East Asian region has been embroiled in a series of minor territorial disputes as China has asserted its regional dominance over its neighbors; some of these have directly involved China and the United States. There is no easier step to defuse potential conflict between these two great powers than to establish a hotline – to be known as CHILINK – between them.
The proposed hotline would be similar to the one between the United States and Russia (MOLINK) during the Cold War. Though popularized in “Dr. Strangelove,” MOLINK was not a telephone, but simply a plain text teletype transmission system. MOLINK was activated on Aug. 30, 1963, in response to the frantic and inefficient communication between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. MOLINK has multiple terminals in key government buildings, only some of which are able to transmit a response. During the Cold War, the transmission traveled along multiple pathways to ensure reliable delivery; in 2008, the hotline was upgraded to a new fiber optic-enabled system, enabling both audio and e-mail messages.
The hotline worked effectively in situations in which neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union was involved, but they both wanted to communicate their intentions, preventing potential superpower involvement, and unnecessary escalation. The hotline was used during the Six Day War in 1967, the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Given the increasing number and intensity of East Asian territorial disputes, a hotline is more necessary now than ever before.
China and the U.S. have tried and failed to establish a working hotline in the past. In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square protests, President Bush attempted to contact Deng Xiaoping via phone; because no hotline was in place, the president’s call went unanswered. Although Presidents Clinton and Jiang agreed to establish a presidential hotline in 1997, when the United States accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade two years later, the call was not answered. In February 2008 the United States and China signed a formal agreement to establish a new hotline, called the Defense Phone Link, but the agreement was negotiated well below the presidential level. It has only been used four times.
The inability to establish a hotline is surprising because China has working hotlines with several other governments. There are currently functioning hotlines between China and Russia, South Korea, India and Vietnam.
Previous hotlines have failed for two primary reasons. First, the internal Chinese disconnect between the military and civilian personnel makes crisis management very difficult. Second, the Chinese Communist Party rules dictate that the Standing Committee must vote prior to conveying information to the Americans. This policy makes rapid communication between U.S. and Chinese presidents in times of crisis very difficult. The new Chinese National Security Council, established in November 2013, attempts to remedy these internal disconnects in authority. The creation of this new parallel body invites an unprecedented opportunity for a hotline connecting the U.S. National Security Council with its Chinese counterpart.
CHILINK would provide textual communications between the two National Security Councils. To establish a workable communication link, CHILINK would be proposed and negotiated through direct President-to-President talks so that each leader might establish some personal stake in the hotline, and thus be more inclined to employ it in crisis situations. This is a departure from previous hotline attempts; the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense for East Asia negotiated the 2008 agreement.
CHILINK would utilize text-only communication to reduce miscommunication that can arise through rapid translation or facial expressions. As with the U.S.-Russia hotline, CHILINK would employ multiple terminals at various locations in both countries to ensure delivery of messages. To eliminate the chance of mixed signaling, only the National Security Council of each country would have the ability to send hotline messages; the additional terminals would be read-only.
Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois has endorsed the U.S.-China hotline; Chinese officials have demonstrated an interest in developing systems of effective crisis management. The United States has a vested interest in preventing military crises in East Asia, and being able to cope with them effectively when they do arise. The drawbacks may be the ability of the Chinese to not answer the president’s call during an incident, weakening the U.S. position in the context of the crisis. Even in this worst-case scenario, the U.S. would be left no worse off than it would have been without a hotline to employ.
Since states will pursue their own interests, disagreements will arise. Nevertheless, better communication can help prevent conflict from escalating, and prevent misunderstanding from creating crises needlessly. The U.S. and Soviet Union were able to navigate much more dangerous waters, with much higher stakes, in part because of a working hotline. Establishing a hotline between the U.S. and China will surely improve the Sino-American relationship in the future.
The United States and China have unsuccessfully attempted to establish hotlines in the past. At present, there are visible signs by the Obama administration to put one in place. However, the creation of a Chinese National Security Council provides a perfect opportunity to pursue a renewed agreement for a workable hotline. The new U.S.-China hotline would work best in third-part disputes in East Asia. The new NSC-to-NSC model is promising. The U.S.- China hotline is a practical and potentially helpful tool to reduce tension and open lines of communication in the increasingly tumultuous East Asia region.
Robert A. Pape is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago. He is co-sponsoring a conference with Sen. Mark Kirk, “Beyond the Pivot: Managing Asian Security Crises,” held in the Senate Hart Building, Wednesday April 30, 2014, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. The conference is open to the public. For more information, visit cpost.uchicago.edu