“Do you want war?” yelled the Chinese Premier down the phone to the President of the United States. “Because wars have been started over far, far less!”
“With respect, Mr Premier, we had no choice but to respond after your sub sunk the Abraham Lincoln,” replied POTUS. “You had to expect a response with the whole world watching.”
“Bah! With greater respect, Mr President, I already told you that we didn’t initiate that attack,” replied the Premier, shifting uncomfortably on the chair in his luxury hotel room in Manhattan. “Why would we? What would there be to be gained? If we haven’t responded to your other provocations in the South China Sea, why would we now?”
“The missile came from one of your hunter-killers,” said POTUS, emotions in check. “That is an unmistakable fact.”
“A submarine you also sunk, which puts you ahead in casualty stakes.”
“It’s more helpful if we don’t think of things in those terms, Mr Premier.”
Which, thought the Premier, was an easy thing for the person with fewer casualties to say. “In any case, we think the sub missile was launched by one of those ninjas running loose.”
“Chinese ninjas, by all accounts. Trained by your military.”
“Alleged Chinese ninjas.”
“Alleged, then.” Both men had an archness in the voices, unaccustomed as they were to being so directly challenged. POTUS continued: “I’m sorry, Mr Premier, but I have to answer to my people and my military. Action was required.”
“That action was unjust,” said the Premier, still angry. “Many other ships were destroyed besides the Sun Wu.” The Premier recalled the scene of the wreckage, now being played side-by-side on the world’s TVs with the footage of the downed American carrier. The images enraged him – how dare the Americans kill his people? – but the death toll and the mysterious manner in which the Chinese aircraft carrier was destroyed produced in him not a little awe.
In the end, perhaps death was the only thing not overrated in life.
But back to the duplicitous American on the other end of the phone.
The Premier continued: “Now I have to answer to MY people. They’re furious, too. Our national prestige has been assaulted. There’s an angry mob outside your embassy in Beijing.”
“Matched by an equally angry mob outside your embassy in New York. But to answer your previous question, no, we don’t want war. I want to do everything possible to avoid that.”
“Attacking our navy is a poor way to start, then.” The Premier glanced over at the armed bodyguards in the room. “What exactly did you use, anyway? God’s own gun?”
His people had told him the attack had come from space, which is why the Chinese military was readying its anti-satellite missiles and searching for a target. The Premier had heard that the Americans had cancelled Project Thor, its secret project to deliver a kinetic orbital strike from space . . . but maybe they had mothballed Thor to create a newer, better weapon. So much for the Outer Space Treaty banning weapons of mass destruction from space.
But the US President wasn’t giving anything away. “The weapon system is classified, Mr Premier. What is not classified is my sincere desire to sit down with you and talk this over.”
The Premier paused and leant back in his chair, thinking furiously. He was already ensconced in his hotel ahead of tomorrow’s UN meeting when they had learnt of the sinking of the aircraft carrier. He was now in enemy territory. His security people had quickly taken over all the floors of the hotel – rudely evicting VIPs from the top floor – and turned the building into a fortress. A fortress filled with giant TVs and marble spa baths, but a fortress still.
More armed Chinese agents were outside, maintaining a wide perimeter around the hotel.
The Americans let it happen, maintaining a respectful distance. Such efforts had been anticipated by the home forces.
For now, there was an uneasy stalemate.
And it was going to take a lot more than the ritualistic exchange of pandas to solve this political problem.
The Premier hadn’t lied. The Chinese people were demanding a response. His military wanted to respond as well, anxious to shake off the “peace disease” that had afflicted and weakened their ranks. Escalation was in the air. The US and Chinese navies were facing each other, commanders with fingers on triggers waiting for the order to fire. Rival jets were flying so close to each other it was a miracle none had collided. Citizens both East and West were baying for each other’s blood, humiliated by the blows to their national prestige.
“Why should I meet with you tomorrow? How do I know you don’t have more outrages planned?”
“Because the criminals behind this are pushing us towards conflict . . . conflict neither of us really want. The world is holding its breath, just like it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mr Premier, this is our Cuban Missile Crisis. A show of unity at the UN would be the best way to show everyone that we’re jointly determined not to be cowed or coerced by terrorism.”
“By all rights, I should just leave. Your actions prove you are a poor host.”
“I implore you to stay, Mr Premier,” said POTUS, soundly deeply sincere. “This is a time for unity. For diplomacy. Not for leaving the negotiating table. We need to unclench our hands.” And our sphincters, perhaps, thought the Premier. Then the other man added: “I can guarantee your safety.”
For a moment the US President sounded like a Mafia godfather, guaranteeing a rival’s security at a sit-down where the rival would be assassinated.
The Chinese Premier paused for a long time. Many thoughts swirled through his head. The sinking of the carrier. His own domestic political situation. The military posture of the Americans. The risk of his own assassination, just like that of the American Vice President, a secret his security forces had winkled out. The possible repercussions if he did leave.
What was the right thing to do? What would be gained by staying? Was “POTUS” planning further attacks?
The American President was supposedly a “good” and “honest” man. But how “good” could any leader that sent men to their deaths be? And how “honest” was any leader who would give the order to suddenly blow an aircraft carrier out of the water with a secret, undeclared weapon?
The Chinese Premier often found the Americans inconsistent. Whereas the Chinese stated their intentions and kept their word – the benefits, perhaps of having a one-party system – American policy and intentions sometimes varied between Presidents and administrations. That made them unpredictable, prone to about-turns and policy changes based on personality and public opinion.
And they called the Chinese inscrutable.
But POTUS wasn’t completely off the mark. They had both lost aircraft carriers. There was a delicate balance of sorts as the two navies stared down at each other on the South China Sea.
“Mr Premier?” prompted POTUS.
The Chinese Premier paused again. He needed to make the right decision here, particularly after the early “retirement” of his predecessor. The stakes for him – personally – were high. Perhaps he needed to play for time. Perhaps staying put was the wise move.
And above all else he needed to make the wise move. His predecessor had made “unwise” moves. And look what had happened to him.
And so the Chinese Premier eventually said: “I will stay, Mr President. But there had better be no more surprises. No more sunken ships or death from above. Because then we might be faced with circumstances neither of us will be able to control.”