Washington (CNN)The Biden administration is examining the possibility of setting up an emergency hotline with the Chinese government similar to the so-called “red phone” established between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which allowed for direct communication with the Kremlin as a way to avert nuclear war.
While the concept is still in its infancy and has yet to be formally raised with the Chinese, the Biden administration wants to develop a rapid communication tool that could be folded into a broader effort to reduce the risk of conflict between the US and China, according to a US official and another source familiar with early conversations about the device.
A hotline to Beijing would let President Joe Biden, or top officials on his national security team, immediately send encrypted phone calls or messages to President Xi Jinping or those around him, according to the two sources. 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 to at least the Obama administration, though the concept wasn’t codified into a classified national security memo until the final year of the Trump administration, according to a source familiar with the memo.
Biden administration officials have continued to pursue the idea, sources said, but there remain numerous details to work out, including whether the Chinese would even agree to use the device. There have long been issues with securing rapid responses from Beijing when it comes to urgent matters, current and former US officials told CNN. The top-down nature of the Chinese political system means that most contact beyond leader-level engagement is disincentivized.
A similar hotline to China already exists at the Pentagon and is supposed to be used exclusively for military matters but rarely is.
“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,” said Kurt Campbell, the senior National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator, earlier this year during a conversation about US-China diplomacy and Taiwan.
The issues with the current system coupled with China’s increasingly offensive military have led to mounting concerns among US national security officials about the potential of miscalculation with China, and a feeling that more needs to be done to increase communication.
“There is a worrisome shortage of tools for incident management in the US-China relationship. 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,” said Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary at the State Department. Russel added that it is imperative to also consider tools “that can be integrated into a wider crisis communication strategy, with the focus on broad risk reduction.”
A senior administration official declined to discuss the device when asked about it but did say that “generally speaking, of course we have an interest in ensuring that competition with China is managed in a responsible way. We have been clear this relationship will be defined by competition and we welcome that stiff competition, but we will also continue to work to ensure this competition doesn’t veer into conflict.”
Working out the technical details
Officials at the State Department and the National Security Council are still working on how the device would technically work, sources told CNN. The next step would be developing the overall
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