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Biden considering direct China ‘red phone’ line for emergencies, report says

China and US flags (Sgt. Mikki Sprenkle/WikiCommons)
July 15, 2021

President Joe Biden is reportedly looking to set up an emergency hotline with China, similar to the “Red Phone” established between the U.S. and Soviet Russia during the Cold War, to avert a potential nuclear war.

While the plan is in its early stages and has not yet been raised with the Chinese government, a U.S. official and another source familiar told CNN on Wednesday that the Biden administration is having early conversations about the crisis hotline.

The concept of a Cold War-style emergency hotline with China isn’t a new one. The idea was considered at least as far back as President Barack Obama’s administration, though it wasn’t codified into a classified national security memo in the final year of President Donald Trump’s term, according to a CNN source familiar with that memo.

Some tools also already exist for rapid communications between the U.S. and Chinese governments. The Pentagon has one line with China that is meant to help resolve military matters. That Pentagon line is rarely used, however.

“We do have a hotline. It’s known to have, the couple of times we’ve used it, just rung in an empty room for hours upon hours,” Kurt Campbell, the senior National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator, told CNN earlier this year.

The Biden administration’s reported plans appear to be an effort to establish emergency communications with China that both sides will actually use, especially amid increased Chinese military activities in contested sea regions.

“There is a worrisome shortage of tools for incident management in the US-China relationship,” Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary at the State Department, told CNN. “It is pretty urgent that the US government pursues working lines of communication which allow them to respond to a crisis or to prevent a crisis. We need a 911 operator so to speak.”

Russel told CNN that the U.S. and China communications tools “that can be integrated into a wider crisis communication strategy, with the focus on broad risk reduction.”

Chris Painter, former State Department coordinator for cyber issues under President Barack Obama told CNN, “There would be advantages to setting up this kind of tool for high-level messaging with China on strategic cyber concerns, but you have to make sure it is connected to the right place in the chain to connect with leadership effortlessly and quickly.”

David Feith, a former State Department official who worked on China during the Trump administration said, “Strategic risk reduction can be good, but up to a point, akin to basic hygiene. The central issue is that Beijing is hostile, predatory and highly capable, so the US must organize to defend and push back across the board. The Biden administration has said that they plan to do that. So while setting up a phone line can be useful, we shouldn’t sink too much significance into it.”