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China’s “ghosting” of the US is a big mistake

The US-Soviet hotline in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

When the Americans shot down a Chinese weather balloon earlier this year, says Andreas Kluth in Bloomberg, the “scariest thing” wasn’t that Beijing had probably been spying on the US from above. It was the total lack of communication between the two sides. Washington and Beijing do have a “dedicated crisis hotline” precisely for these sorts of situations. But when the Americans “dialled it”, or whatever the modern equivalent is, the Chinese “apparently didn’t pick up”. This “ghosting” was no accident. For the past year, Xi Jinping’s administration has “severed almost all contacts between the American and Chinese militaries”. The goal, apparently, is to unnerve the Americans enough to make them hesitant about projecting power in East Asia, and “eventually to shoo them completely out of what China considers its sphere of influence”.

That would be a “disastrous miscalculation”. However bad relations between great powers get, it’s crucial to keep some lines of communication open. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the “secret dialogue” between the administrations of President John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev “saved them, and the world, from atomic Armageddon”. Likewise, when a US spy plane had to land on a Chinese island after a collision with a fighter jet in 2001, the diplomatic stand-off was resolved through back channels. The lesson of these incidents is simple: when the stakes are really high, “we must keep talking to one another, even – or especially – when we’re not on speaking terms”.