A Hotline to Beijing Is Not Enough

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union threatened to become thermonuclear hot, the two superpowers created the “Hotline,” or, as it is formally known, the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link. The idea was simple: Before you panic and give the order for war, talk to the other side and find out if he’s really trying to start a war or not.

It was a good idea, and was put to use during the Six-Day War in 1967, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

It was considered to be a great success in keeping brinksmanship away from the brink. But its very existence reflects a constant potential for war. Not for nothing is the Washington-Moscow Hotline tested every hour to be sure it’s in working order.

The fact that in 2008 the U.S. and China decided to set up a hotline is, for the same reason, both good news and bad news. The good news is that wise precautions are being taken; the bad news is that such precautions are necessary.

More bad news: More precautions are yet needed. The General Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama agreed just a few weeks ago to notify the other side before major military activities, and to develop protocols  for sea and air encounters, to avoid military confrontations.

“It’s incredibly important that we avoid inadvertent escalation,” Ben Rhodes, a U.S. deputy national security advisor, observed. An “accidental circumstance,” he said, could “lead into something that could precipitate conflict.”

Chinese expansionism, at least in its own Asian sphere, has been a known thing for decades; so, too, Western anxiety over it. What has come to light much more recently, though, is the extent to which both American and Chinese planners are expecting war. The Hotline and the new protocols are there to avoid the inadvertent, not to prevent the inevitable.

The prospect of war with China has lately become a major topic in U.S. military colleges and journals; and the People’s Liberation Army is likewise brainstorming for what senior officers increasingly believe to be an unavoidable superpower clash. The last two U.S. secretaries of defense have publicly expressed concern about such a possibility.

Aggressive Chinese behavior beyond its coastline and an ostentatious U.S. naval-air presence in the Pacific region increase the chances that overheated war games or some fatal incident will lead to serious conflict.

In particular, American officials are perturbed by China’s unwillingness to meet them halfway in sharing information about military intentions and capabilities. In April 2006, for example, the start of talks was announced between the strategic nuclear force commanders on both sides, but the PLA never followed through.

How near is the danger? Should we start losing sleep over it right away, or not yet?

Fortunately, the experts say the danger is not immediate, if only because China is not ready for war with America. Its military hardware and technology still cannot compare to America’s; and its economy, for all its boom and bombast, still needs American markets and technology more than America needs China’s. In addition, China needs an ally if it were to confront a U.S.-led alliance with Japan, Australia and maybe India. Beijing and Moscow are beginning to work together diplomatically, but they’re not there yet.

When will they be?

One educated opinion gives us about 20 years, until 2034, for China to catch up to the U.S. sufficiently to risk a war.

What can be done in the meantime to prevent such a catastrophe?

The inscrutability of the PLA, and of China in general, needs to be overcome. While we can’t force them to share military information, much more can be done to improve our understanding of the Chinese and to influence their behavior.

There already exists a significant academic interchange; but there, too, the flow of information may be more in China’s favor. In fact, there is concern that Chinese-funded cultural programs — so-called Confucius Institutes — on American college campuses have come to exert far more influence on American students than similar programs sponsored by American universities in China.

“U.S. colleges and universities should not be outsourcing academic control, faculty and student oversight or curriculum to a foreign government,” Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) has said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

It has been suggested that the time has come for a serious federal investment in Chinese-language programs within the United States, in order to develop our own home-grown experts, fluent in both the language and culture, for whom the Chinese will not be inscrutable. The time when U.S. officials can rely on translators while their Chinese counterparts converse in English has long passed.

Now that the Chinese giant has awakened, the U.S. cannot afford to go to sleep.