Hot Line : Sino – US Rapprochement or Tokenism?

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An Agreement to establish a hot line between the PLA and the US military is a significant breakthrough in Sino US military relations. Many forget that the first contacts with Mao’s Red Army were by American General, Joseph Stilwell on the Burmese front during the Second World War. Stifled by Chiang Kai Sheik’s forces, some reports state that, ‘Vinegar’ Joe as he was known then for his acerbic approach had even dabbled with the idea of arming Mao’s army to fight the Japanese under an American general. Yet the political equations of that era had Joe recalled back to the United States thereby he failed to implement his plan of contacts with the People’s Army.

Yet the Chinese are fully utilizing Stillwell’s legacy today, the Ledo Road from Ledo in North East India to Kunming in China was built to connect both the countries for transportation of war like material to Chinese forces cut off by the Japanese invasion. The road was also a tribute to Stilwell’s leadership and American engineering genius. The Ledo road will form an important link between India and China’s in the years ahead.

When US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates and Cao Gangchuan, Chinese minister of national defense agreed to have a direct communication link, the memories of Stilwell and linkages with the People’s Army were revived. The most significant facet of this hot line is that this will be the first communication link established by the PLA with any armed forces of the World. That it has been with the USA with which it shares a rather difficult relationship denotes a great achievement for diplomacy between the Middle Kingdom and Washington.

Thus, a rather euphoric Gates exclaimed, “We reached agreement on implementation of a direct telephone link between our two defense establishments. We discussed the need to move forward and deepen our military-to-military dialogue, including that on nuclear policy strategy and doctrine. We agreed to enhance military exchanges at all levels.” On a more sober note, Cao, “merely agreed that the technical work for establishment of a hot line will be taken up”.

So what exactly is a hot line? In the age of the internet, instant messaging, sms and chat, the hotline may seem anachronistic. But it is one of the major confidence building measures between two potential adversaries. It provides for instant, “lift receiver” communications between two key operational decision makers of a country’s military, which is manned 24/7. No dialing or number punching here. In the case of a crisis, it facilitates exchange of information, which could lead to reduction of tension and defusing a potential flash point.

Does that mean that the US and China are at war. Certainly not. But it will substantially contribute to avoidance of any accidental triggering of a crisis thereby preventing escalation. Since both the US and China maintain their forces including nuclear at varying states of readiness, a hot line is more than necessary.

Nevertheless, the Chinese are not likely to accede to full-scale operations for the hot line very easily. While unofficial Chinese reaction indicated through articles by scholars at the War Theory and Strategy Studies Department of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences has been quite euphoric, as a resident scholar, Wang Xinjun, comments, “The military hotline is bound to help dissolve “China Military Threat Theory” positively” but also goes on to emphasize that this theory is the result of lack of awareness in America of the traditionally defensive nature of Chinese culture.

Knowing Beijing well, you can expect to have a fully operational hot line only once they are confident that Washington has a better understanding of China and the Chinese people, which may take many more years ahead.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.