In 21st century conflict, even the crisis hotline could become a weapon of war.
There are growing fears among foreign policy specialists and military and intelligence officials that any new crisis communication systems with China — updated, tactical-level versions of the cliched “red phone” between Washington and Moscow at the height of the Cold War — could themselves become strategic tools of attack or deception.
While the U.S. already has a nuclear hotline with China, along with a so-called “space hotline” to avoid satellite collisions or other catastrophes in orbit, the Pentagon over the past two decades has made a concerted effort to beef up regular military-to-military communications with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
U.S. officials in the Pacific, military sources said, routinely hold video calls with their Chinese counterparts, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley have made it a priority to develop rapport with top officers in Beijing even as much of the Trump administration is pressing a more hawkish line with Beijing.
At the same time, there’s been a growing push for more direct, immediate communication avenues that could prove vital in a potential crisis between the two nuclear superpowers. The possibility of such a crisis, miscalculation or inadvertent encounter came into sharp focus over the Fourth of July weekend when both militaries held major naval drills in the same region of the South China Sea.
But military insiders caution that seemingly helpful communication mechanisms may introduce an entirely new danger to already tense situations and, in certain scenarios, could actually represent a threat to U.S. security.
“There are those within the government who have long advocated for establishing communications channels with the PLA at the operational levels of command, in the belief this would help avert a conflict, especially for cases of accidents at sea or in the air,” retired Navy Capt. James Fanell, former director of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told The Washington Times. “I am not sure how effective such a communications channel would be, as [China] may try and make us dependent upon such a protocol but then in the midst of a crisis fail to answer the other end of the line.”
Indeed, specialists warn and military sources acknowledge that if such avenues were put in place, Beijing could potentially exploit them during an offensive in the South China Sea or some other hostile act. If U.S. officials expect to be able to reach their Chinese counterparts during the crucial early moments of a military confrontation, analysts warn, Washington could lose precious minutes frantically to reach PLA leaders who have no intention of responding.
Even more ominously, there’s mounting evidence that the Chinese or Russian militaries may be capable of quite literally faking their way through a crisis hotline call, perhaps giving the Pentagon a false sense of security and preserving the element of surprise.
“I think we need more than hotlines. … In the era of hacking, spoofing and soon deep fakes, hearing somebody on the other side of the call give you happy talk won’t necessarily resolve a crisis anyway,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
Hotlines “can really only be effective in many cases if the two parties to a call have developed some kind of potentially begrudging respect of each other,” he continued. “Otherwise, hotlines can just be vehicles for propaganda and deception, and do nothing to resolve a crisis. They could even contribute to intensifying it.”
A last resort
In most instances, the term “hotline” refers not to a physical landline but to communications at the highest levels of government or the military — including conversations between heads of state. The U.S. and the Soviet Union, for example, set up a direct hotline in the aftermath of 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis.
The U.S. employed that channel to talk to the Kremlin immediately after the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, and the channel was subsequently used by numerous presidents, according to data compiled by the Arms Control Association.
Today, Russia and China have their own bilateral nuclear hotline, as do India and Pakistan. North Korea and South Korea also have their own channel for use during military emergencies, though Pyongyang reportedly has often gone dark and stopped responding to calls during tense moments. India and China earlier this year resolved previous disagreements and agreed to set up their own military hotline, though it’s unclear if it was of any benefit during recent border standoffs between the two nations.
Outside of the nuclear hotline, the U.S. has regular military communications with Russia, particularly in places such as Syria, where both nations have an active troop presence. The Pentagon has said it employs regular “deconfliction” protocols there to ensure there are no accidents or miscalculations.
Since the Clinton administration, the U.S. has had its own direct nuclear hotline with Beijing, to be used in the event of a major crisis.
But such high-level communications aren’t the proper avenue to discuss specific military exercises or potential confrontations. In those circumstances, the responsibility falls to the Pentagon and its commanders in the field to build on groundwork laid by American diplomats.
Defense Department officials told The Times that both the U.S. and China helped develop the “Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea,” a set of rules and procedures designed to help prevent an escalation of tensions between navies. The two nations also have signed formal rules on air safety and maritime encounters, setting up common terms and references for both countries to employ in an incident.
As part of the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, U.S. and Chinese officials meet twice a year “to discuss how to develop maritime and aviation safety and professionalism” and to review any incidents over the past year, Pentagon officials said.
But it’s less clear exactly how direct communication between the two militaries would play out in a real-world crisis and whether that communication would be enough to halt escalation.
In 2009, for example, the USS Impeccable was shadowed by five Chinese vessels during a mission in the South China Sea. Military sources familiar with that incident told The Times it took a complex series of phone calls from U.S. Command in the Pacific to the American Embassy in Beijing, then to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and ultimately the PLA before the situation was resolved.
In other instances, Chinese military officials have failed to properly warn the U.S. and other nations of military exercises in proximity to their ships, such as a 2013 incident in which the USS Cowpens nearly collided with Chinese warships. In extreme scenarios where death or destruction appears imminent, officials said, the navies can hail one another on international frequencies.
Moving forward, specialists say it’s more important than ever that military leaders establish fully functional lines of communication — especially given the strained state of relations between Washington and Beijing. Over just the past several weeks, the countries have closed consulates and expelled journalists in a diplomatic tit-for-tat that has ratcheted up tensions and sparked fears of conflict.
“The proper operation of hotlines and other crisis management mechanisms are needed most when bilateral relations are poor and, therefore, the chances of misperceptions and conflict escalation are high,” said Patricia M. Kim, a senior policy analyst with the China Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“Given the downward trajectory of U.S.-China relations, properly functioning crisis management mechanisms will become much more important for preventing longstanding tensions from evolving into hot conflicts.”