Sadly, the symbolic White House red phone we see in the movies never really existed. Nevertheless, there was a pivotal moment, after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the need for a direct hotline between the US and Russia was painfully clear. This ability to avoid confusion and defuse incidents with diplomacy is one of the key reasons why the Cold War never overheated.
It’s an approach the nations of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) embraced at a recent defence summit, with an agreement to set up a similar hotline between all defence ministers. ‘Just like people, countries need to build relationships and links to build trust and avoid misunderstandings,’ Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen stated afterwards. ‘We are now a phone call away from each other. This hotline will reduce the risk of incidents at sea.’
“US actions in response to destabilising behaviour in the South China Sea clearly come across as provocative, particularly to the Chinese government”
Southeast Asia, and especially the South China Sea, has become a geopolitical hotspot in recent years, as neighbouring countries engage in a low-level arms race and compete over marine territories, such as the Spratly Islands. With this in mind, Jurgen Haacke, Associate Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, thinks the hotline won’t be a simple solution to ease regional tensions, given that neither China (the PRC) or the US are members of the alliance.
‘There are cases in which ASEAN neighbours have conflicting claims as regards maritime jurisdiction,’ says Haacke. ‘There are also competing claims among some ASEAN countries in relation to the South China Sea. However, to the extent that states may be engaging in destabilising behaviour in the South China Sea, most analysts would point to the lack of restraint on the part of the PRC, not least recent land reclamation activities. At the same time, US actions that are designed in response clearly also come across as provocative, particularly to the Chinese government. Given the risks involved with the growing assertiveness that has been in evidence for some time, establishing a dedicated hotline seems like a logical step to take for ASEAN Defence Ministers.’
Haacke also believes that the hotline could benefit ASEAN members in other ways, such as coordinating humanitarian activity at times of disaster.
This article was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.