China and the U.S. Can Avoid a Space War by Making That Hotline Bling


A new hotline allows China and the U.S. to communicate about activity in space, with the aim of avoiding any conflict-starting misunderstandings. Sciepro/Daboost/PeterDazely/Getty
A new hotline allows China and the U.S. to communicate about activity in space, with the aim of avoiding any conflict-starting misunderstandings. Sciepro/Daboost/PeterDazely/Getty

The United States and China aren't 100 percent chummy these days, but that doesn't mean the two superpowers don't talk. As Uncle Sam and the world's largest Communist country look to outdo each other on the economic, military and political fronts, the two countries also recently came together to try to avoid a full-blown fight either in outer space. A new "hotline" will make it easier for officials from the States and the Middle Kingdom to share information about what they're doing up there in the final frontier, all to avoid any international dust-up.

The new communication system will allow the countries' leaders to talk directly about their space activities via secure text message. It's intended to cut through diplomatic channels and other bureaucratic middlemen so that the presidents can speak quickly to keep each other informed about operations in space. It's also meant to avoid both accidental collisions and any possible misinterpretations about space activity that could be taken as acts of aggression.

The space hotline is a first between the two countries – the U.S. and Russia already have one in place – and world leaders have been relying on similar systems to avoid hostilities on the ground and in the air for decades.

Shortly after stepping back from the ledge of World War III during the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. and Russia established a direct telegraph system to allow them to alert each other of military and other moves. It turns out that the mythical red phone connecting the Pentagon with the Kremlin exists only on the big screen. Still, a super-secure email and audio messaging system linking the two countries has proven its worth as a way to keep leaders aware of each other's intentions when it comes to unrest in other nations.

During a 1967 skirmish between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East, for example, President Lyndon Johnson used what was then a teletype terminal to inform Russian leader Alexei Kosygin that U.S. military planes would be flying to the Mediterranean Sea.

Richard Nixon used the hotline for similar updates during wars in Pakistan and Cyprus during the late 1960s. The goal was to keep the Russians aware of certain military movements so that they didn't think the Americans were picking a fight.

The same idea has helped build the existing war hotlines that China shares with Russian, India, Vietnam and Korea. Earlier efforts to create a direct communication line for China and the U.S. have borne little fruit. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, President George H.W. Bush tried contacting his Chinese counterpart phone only to have that call go unreturned.

This new hotline offers something for both sides: Namely, the chance to avoid orbital warfare and a space arms race.