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Sixty years ago this October, the Soviet Union and the U.S. almost combined to blow up the world via the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was and is a widely held view that the situation was exacerbated by clunky lines of communication between the Soviet and American leaderships, with physical letters having to be delivered through diplomatic channels, often leaving discussions frozen while events moved fast. Sensing that this might not be the best reason to start a total war, both sides subsequently agreed to the creation of a nuclear hotline, whereby at times of equivalent crisis messages could be sent directly between the leaderships of both countries — with one teleprinter machine installed in the Pentagon and one in the Kremlin

Reassuringly, hotlines have proliferated (in a variety of forms) throughout the world in the years since then. However, less reassuringly, their usage, and even the precise nature of their existence, remains contested within what is so far this century’s defining great power relationship — between the U.S. and China. Far from floating above the fray, as an emergency pressure release valve that sits in static testament to a foreign policy lesson permanently learned, hotlines between the U.S. and China instead appear to have been turned into another tool for leverage, which is likely bad news for anyone who prefers not to be blown up.

Publicly, the creation of two separate types of hotlines have previously been announced between Washington and Beijing. In 1998, they signed an agreement for a direct head-of-state hotline, and reportedly activated it during President Bill Clinton’s visit to China in June of that year. Then, in 2008, a hotline in the form of a direct 24-hour phone line between the two countries’ “defense establishments” was announced However, in the past two years, the U.S. has repeatedly raised concerns about how China is working with these hotlines – in a manner that requires some unpicking. 

In 2020, various insider “military sources” — unnamed except for James Fanell, former director of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet — cited by the Associated Press warned that China could attempt to “make [the U.S.] dependent upon [use of hotlines] but then in the midst of a crisis fail to answer the other end of the line.” They, in effect, suggested that China wanted to use hotlines, for the time being, in order to stop using them later.

Last year, though, the Biden administration’s top Asia official, Kurt Campbell, accused the Chinese of simply ignoring phone calls that came via hotlines. The implication here was seemingly the opposite: Rather than wanting to make calls routine, China was engaging in geopolitical ghosting as a mechanism to keep the U.S. guessing as to its future intentions. 

Then, finally, The New York Times, in an article co-written at the end of last year by Washington correspondent David E. Sanger, citing mostly anonymous insider sources, cast doubt upon the entire existence of any hotline, opening with the dramatic statement that “the United States has no nuclear hotline to Beijing.“

If we combine these insider accounts, we could end up with the unworkable impression that China is both ignoring calls while simultaneously attempting to make the U.S. rely on them, via hotlines that don’t exist. Which sounds like a Coen Brothers movie. 

A more workable version of events is that the different levels of hotline (1998 head-of-state vs 2008 “defense establishments”) are being used differently, with The Guardian reporting that the 1998 system had never been put to use, “even when NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.” This could at least explain how there could effectively be no “nuclear hotline” in use while elsewhere there could still be criticism of how China is using other hotlines. However, we are still left with the apparent contradiction in public U.S. accounts of how the Chinese are using the other hotlines — are they attempting to make them too important or not using them at all? 

That inconsistency suggests these announcements can be seen as an attempt to pressure the Chinese, more than a simple public update. This of course does not mean that China isn’t also using (or not using) hotlines tactically, but it does reveal the possibility that both the usage of hotlines and the discussion of the usage of hotlines could now be being used as tools to increase pressure rather than decrease it.

Whichever the reality is — and it could be both simultaneously — the tangling up of hotlines with brinksmanship would be a loss. Because while real hotlines, used sincerely, are not a panacea for dealing with crises between great powers, they have previously proven to be an effective safety valve. During the 1967 Arab-Israel war, for instance, declassified information now shows that 20 hotline messages were sent between the U.S. and Soviet leaders involved on either side, ending in the successful arrangement of a ceasefire. To work without an equivalent mechanism now because the mechanism itself has been gamified feels like a mistake, and as tensions rise over Taiwan, it would be a particularly lame way to see out the end of the world.

Image: Jim Kuhn, Wikimedia

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