Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now in Seoul, after completing two days of meetings in Beijing during the first stop of a three-nation tour (he also will be visiting Japan before heading home). In China, Gates traded compliments with Chinese leaders, issued correct statements on the need for dialogue, and toured the Forbidden City, the imperial palace at the north end of Tiananmen Square. It was Gates’s first trip to the country since succeeding Donald Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief, and senior U.S. officials marked the event by reporting modest progress on a range of secondary issues. The Chinese, for example, promised to provide more cooperation on accounting for American prisoners taken during the Korean War.
Both sides also announced the planned establishment of a military hotline between Washington and Beijing “at an early date.” The initiative was announced during Hu Jintao’s summit in Washington last April and has been the subject of periodic re-announcements ever since, such as one this June when Gates was in Singapore. Despite the apparent signs of progress, the Chinese have been dragging their feet over technical issues. The United States has sought to establish such a hotline for more than five years. Yet the critical issue now is not how such a link will be established. It is whether the Chinese wish to engage the United States in substantive discussions at all—or whether they wish merely to sip tea and waste our time.
There is reason to believe that when we call, no one will answer the phone. (There was, remember, nobody taking Washington’s calls during the Hainan reconnaissance plane incident in April 2001.) The issue is as much about the ability of the Chinese government to make decisions in the middle of crisis as it is about the state of relations between the two countries.
But there’s a more fundamental reason why the phone may not be of much use during the next confrontation. At the same time that Gates was talking with Chinese officials this week, Premier Wen Jiabao was in Moscow talking with President Vladimir Putin about their countries’ “friendship for generations.” While the American defense secretary was arguing about the technicalities of telecommunications lines, Moscow and Beijing were putting together the alliance that will challenge the international community for a lifetime. It seems they have been communicating just fine without a hotline.