Biden administration seeks ‘hotline’ to China for emergency communications

While the concept is still in its infancy and has yet to be formally discussed with the Chinese, the Biden administration is keen to develop a rapid communication tool that could fit into a larger effort to reduce the risk of conflict between the United States and China, according to an American official and another source familiar with the first conversations on the device.
A hotline to Beijing would allow President Joe Biden, or senior officials of his national security team, to immediately send phone calls or encrypted messages to President Xi Jinping or his entourage, the two sources said. For example, urgent information could be shared about sudden military movements or warning messages sent about cyber hacks.

The idea of ​​setting up a hotline with Beijing dates back at least to the Obama administration, although the concept was not codified in a classified national security memo until the last year of the Trump administration, according to a source. close to the note.

Biden administration officials continued to pursue the idea, sources said, but many details remain to be determined, including whether the Chinese would even agree to use the device. There have long been problems getting quick responses from Beijing on urgent questions, current and former U.S. officials told CNN. The top-down nature of the Chinese political system means that most contacts beyond leadership level engagement are demotivated.

A similar hotline to China already exists at the Pentagon and is supposed to be used exclusively for military matters, but rarely is.

“We have a hotline. We know it has, the few times we’ve used it, rang an empty room for hours and hours,” said Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the National Council of Canada. security. year during a conversation about US-Chinese diplomacy and Taiwan.

Problems with the current system, coupled with China’s increasingly offensive military, have sparked growing concerns among U.S. national security officials about the potential for miscalculations with China and the United States. feeling that more needs to be done to increase communication.

“There is a worrying dearth of tools for incident management in US-China relations. It is quite urgent that the US government pursue lines of communication that allow it to respond to a crisis or prevent a crisis. We need a 911 operator, so to speak, ”said Danny Russel, former assistant secretary in the State Department. Russel added that it is imperative to also consider tools “which can be integrated into a broader crisis communications strategy, with an emphasis on broad risk reduction”.

A senior administration official declined to discuss the device when asked about it, but said that “generally speaking, of course we have an interest in ensuring that competition with China is managed. responsibly. We have made it clear that this relationship will be defined by competition and we welcome this fierce competition, but we will also continue to work to ensure that this competition does not escalate into conflict. ”

Work on technical details

Officials from the State Department and the National Security Council are still working on the technical operation of the device, sources told CNN. The next step would be to develop the overall concept and integrate it into the Biden administration’s engagement plan with China. Then, the device would need the approval of the White House and Chinese authorities before being implemented.

While the “hotline” between the United States and Russia was seen as a useful tool that increased communication during the Cold War, its recent effectiveness is questionable. For example, the Obama administration used the Kremlin hotline to warn Russia not to interfere in the 2016 US election, a warning that went unheeded.

The effectiveness of a new hotline with China would depend heavily on Beijing’s commitment to use it and place it in a position where Xi would have regular access to it.

“There would be benefits to setting up this type of tool for high-level messaging with China on strategic cyber issues, but you need to make sure it’s connected to the right place in the chain to connect with. leadership effortlessly and quickly, ”said Chris Painter, former State Department coordinator for cyber issues under President Barack Obama. “You can’t get the information you want, but it could be used to send messages back and forth to warn people.”

Problem with China’s Timely Responses

In recent years, the United States and other countries have not been able to get timely responses from China on urgent issues. For example, over the past year, it has been difficult to get answers from China regarding Covid-19, U.S. officials said.

“It is difficult to reach the Chinese authorities in times of difficulty. This is largely because their system works top to bottom. At the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, we often did not get answers to critical questions. “said a former US official who served in Beijing.

In 2014, the Chinese state oil company sent an oil rig to a disputed area in the South China Sea and did not respond to calls from Vietnam to discuss the matter.

The idea of ​​connecting the White House and Beijing has been vaguely discussed for years, but the implementation has always seemed far away.

“We discussed the idea of ​​an electronic messaging system with Chinese officials during the Obama administration. It was brought up in our discussions on cybercrime, but we haven’t made much progress. China and China didn’t have the same history of confidence-building measures with the United States as Russia, so they viewed it more suspiciously, ”Painter said. “But I think now they have a better understanding of how it could be used. It is by no means a quick fix, but it does give you a useful tool.”

Overall, the Biden administration has said it plans to maintain open lines of communication with China, although early meetings have been strained.

In the Biden administration’s first face-to-face with Chinese officials earlier this year, the two sides exchanged diplomatic spades rarely seen on cameras. While National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Biden’s “priorities and intentions” were made clear, the two sides walked away without scheduling follow-up meetings or setting up task forces.

Asked about a future meeting between Biden and Xi, the White House gave no details.

“The administration is seriously considering what it would really like to pursue and how it plans to move forward in its engagement with China. It has been cautious and smart not to rush prematurely into a commitment to China. large scale with China, ”said Russel. .

And as the administration expands its diplomatic approach, former U.S. officials say simply setting up a new hotline won’t be enough.

“Strategic risk reduction can be good, but to a point akin to basic hygiene. The central problem is that Beijing is hostile, predatory and highly capable, so the United States needs to organize itself. to defend and push back at all levels. The Biden administration has said they plan to do so. So while setting up a phone line can be helpful, we shouldn’t fall for it too much, “he said. said David Feith, a former State Department official who worked on China under the Trump administration.

As China’s challenge escalates, Biden officials have publicly acknowledged the difficult nature of this challenge and the work it will take to meet it.

“Do I think it’s possible that the United States and China can coexist and live in peace? Yes, I think so. But I think the challenge is going to be extremely difficult for this generation and the next.” Campbell said at one final event. week.

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