As a Chinese spy balloon sailed over the United States in February 2023, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urgently attempted to contact his counterparts in Beijing. Yet phones rang in empty rooms for several hours, and the Pentagon’s calls went unanswered. It was not the first time Chinese military leaders and policymakers ignored American hotline calls during enhanced tension. It was instead only the latest part of a dangerous pattern of behavior that risks the deterioration of Sino-American relations.
A hotline is only one small component of a nation’s diplomatic repertoire, but it can be the most important in times of crisis. Hotlines allow policymakers to converse quickly and directly with one another, building up personal trust between heads of state as they navigate flashpoints bilaterally. They are also crucial for providing detail, clarification, and explanations, thus enhancing understanding and helping to avoid accidental misconceptions about the other’s intentions. In short, they can be a fundamental tool for managing risk, avoiding escalation, and maintaining international security.
The history of Cold War diplomacy only emphasizes how crucial hotlines can be. After the high drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which saw messages take hours to reach their recipients, the United States and the Soviet Union wisely established a hotline link to transfer written messages swiftly between the two nation’s capitals. The Washington-Moscow hotline did not eradicate future tensions but was an essential brake on the erosion of relations. Over the next three decades, it would prove its worth several times.
During the Six-Day War of June 1967, Washington and Moscow frequently sent messages over the hotline as combat in the Middle East developed. These messages included the Soviets’ assurances they were attempting to solve the conflict diplomatically and the Johnson administration’s clarification on the maneuvers of the Sixth Fleet. When fighting broke out in the region just a few years later in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the hotline again displayed its significance, as it would during numerous other Cold War flashpoints worldwide.
During times of international crisis, we must view hotlines as enduring and indispensable links between feuding powers rather than redundant relics from a bygone Cold War era. While one may debate the accuracy of the ‘Second Cold War’ analogy, past hotline discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union demonstrate that it is crucial to maintain communication between Beijing and Washington today.
Hotlines exist between the United States and China at the executive and military levels. Grounded in their experiences in the twentieth century, various U.S. administrations have long viewed hotlines as a vital diplomatic asset and have been motivated to use them during contemporary crises, either with China or other strategic competitors. Although the Chinese Communist Party leadership has so far shown an aversion to managing escalation bilaterally with the United States, frequently leaving calls unanswered over the past few decades. Beijing ignored American attempts to communicate during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Twelve calls were made by the Bush administration during the Hainan Island incident in 2001, with each of them similarly being snubbed. The same would happen again during numerous other episodes, and Xi Jinping and other Chinese policymakers have rebuffed modest proposals for more active hotline discussions.
Analysts have noted that Chinese officials hold suspicions over why American leaders would want to utilize hotlines, viewing them as little other than an instrument for the United States to surreptitiously normalize certain Indo-Pacific region operations. More dangerously, they also believe they can find strategic advantage in avoiding hotline conversations and the ambiguity this helps create. But regardless of the differences of opinion, the Cold War shows bilateral crisis management is still essential.
As anxiety continues to mount over the fate of Taiwan and the South China Sea, the United States must continue to pressure the Communist Party leadership to come to the phone more promptly. Complaining after the fact isn’t enough. It should now be a significant part of U.S. foreign policy to construct a more effective hotline dialogue with Beijing. American officials must explain that the ambiguity the Chinese leaders seek during a crisis is dangerous.
With the rise of artificial intelligence and the ubiquity of disinformation, serious miscalculations over specific naval movements or espionage incidents have become more likely. A lack of communication could result in a dangerous slide toward military or nuclear confrontation. In a geopolitical climate where atomic threats have again begun to be bandied around, Beijing and Washington will find that talking is the best medicine.
Ronan P. Mainprize is a PhD Candidate at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. His research specializes in intelligence, U.S. foreign policy, and international security. He can be followed on Twitter @RonanPMainprize.