The Murdoch Doctrine: A Half-Century of Peace and Victorious Counter-Terrorism

Today, on March 1, 2064, as we look back at the history of the last 50 years, we can point to two remarkable geopolitical facts: First, the US and China have both continued to grow economically for all these years, and yet the two powers have avoided any sort of armed conflict.  Second, not only have the US and China avoided war, but they have also cooperated closely to resolve the Jihad Question. 

Together, these two facts have made the 21st century a vastly more peaceful time than anyone might have expected at the beginning of this century—and especially after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

In China, this era has been called the kuàilè 50 nián hépíng yǔ wéichí zhìxù— the “happy 50 years of peace and preserving order.”  Here in the US, the era has been called, variously, “Peace Through Strength,” “The Global War on Terror,” or sometimes, the “Spirit of Foggy Bottom.”

Yet we should never forget where the basic idea of US-China cooperation came from.  We should give credit to the policy that came to be known as the Murdoch Doctrine, after the media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Interestingly, it all begin with a series of tweets.  Fifty years ago today, on March 1, 2014, in the wake of the Muslim terrorist attack in Kunming, China, that left dozens dead and more than 100 injured, Murdoch tweeted out: “Obama should call Chinese President following today's incident and say ‘we both have the problem of Muslim terrorism. Can we work together?’”

And then, on March 14, in the wake of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370,  on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, Murdoch tweeted again: “777. Still think this a reminder that US and China should be working more closely on Muslim extremist threat.”

It might be hard to believe now, but at the time of Murdoch’s tweet-commentary, in 2014, it seemed that the US and China were on a collision course.  The year before, in 2013, the US had sided with Japan in a showdown over the Diaoyu Islands in the Pacific.  Indeed, as far back as 2001, the US and China had found themselves in potentially explosive geopolitical confrontations.

But as Murdoch kept pointing out, the loss of flight MH370 was a reminder to both nation that they shared a common interest—suppressing terrorism. That common interest, Murdoch continued, was so vital that both countries should focus on that burning problem, not their trans-Pacific rivalry.

Some of the details about that ill-fated Malaysian 777 jetliner are in dispute even to this day, but the basic truth is this: The terrorist incident was a deliberate act that started in the cockpit, with the pilots, both of whom were Malaysian Muslims.  In addition, the Malaysian government proved itself to be terminally uninterested in fully investigating the tragedy, leaving many to think that the regime itself was honeycombed with terrorist sympathizers.  In other words, Malaysia was just one more Muslim nation in need of serious precaution. 

As for the US-China rivalry, Murdoch was under no illusions that Washington and Beijing had their differences, on issues including cybersecurity and intellectual property, as well as the three “t’s”—trade, Tibet, and Taiwan.  But Murdoch, displaying relentless resolve, kept pointing out the obvious: As civilized, modernizing countries,  both the US and China had an overriding mutual interest in stopping terrorism.

Moreover, Murdoch continued, the US and China simply could not afford to fight each other. That is, the power of both countries was so great that they risked mutual annihilation.  As has been said of such situations, “No options, no problems.” That is, if war between the US and China was unthinkable, then the two countries would have to think about other things—such as stopping terrorism.  Indeed, history records that once the US and China found their common ground in counter-terrorism, it became possible for them to see common ground in other areas as well.  

So as we look back half a century, we can see that the Malaysian airplane incident was decisive in changing sentiments in three ways.  First, the incident led to an immediate and comprehensive upgrading of air security, including profiling—especially in Muslim areas.  Second, it led to a much-improved system for tracking airplanes, involving closer cooperation of the US, China, and other countries sincerely committed to aviation security.  And third, over the longer term, it led to the new system of robot-override, so that the autonomous flight-control of an airplane could be taken over by authorities.  

But what authorities?  Back in 2014, that was the big question.  Yes, the Chinese wanted to stop another MH-370—after all, almost all the passengers on that plane were Chinese—and the Americans, of course, wanted to stop another 9-11.   But what entity would be entrusted with the technical capacity to commandeer airplanes in mid-flight, to keep them from crashing or being crashed?  

That’s when when the idea for the Joint Aviation Safety Authority (JASA) was first outlined, in that historic late-night conversation between an American and Chinese diplomat in Washington DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. 

As we remember, it was a lengthy process to create JASA, but both Washington and Beijing ultimately concluded that they didn’t want to turn the robotic override authority over to, say, the United Nations.  As a result, worldwide JASA power over civilian aviation was simply split between the two countries; China took responsibility for the East, and the US took responsibility for the West.  

JASA, of course, became the model for future cooperation between the two superpowers, especially in the area of counter-terrorism.  We can see a direct link between JASA and the legendary joint operations of the following decades—that is, joint operations, across the Middle East and South Asia, that have made the world so much safer.   Yes, Murdoch most definitely deserved his Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet as we look back to the origins of the Murdoch Doctrine, we should recall that while its wisdom might seem obvious now, it was controversial at the time.

In particular, the Obama administration was strongly opposed.  The 44th President held a much different view of world security, and so did his team.  On February 17, 2014, then Secretary of State John Kerry had actually described climate change as “the greatest challenge of our generation.”   Other world powers had paid close attention to Kerry’s top-prioritization of climate change, but then pushed forcefully to establish priorities of their own.   For example, less than two weeks after Kerry’s speech, on February 28, Russia occupied Crimea; it was the first move in Russia’s long campaign to re-subjugate that country.  

Amazingly, even the Russian experience was not enough to shake what had been the Obama administration’s faith in world governance.  For instance, on March 14, 2014, the Obama administration had announced that it was turning the Internet over to the “global community.”  The “global community”?  Really?  The very next day came news that Al Qaeda was planning a new wave of car-bombings in the US.  And of course, the Obama administration has been reviled by historians for its profound failures in homeland security.  

Needless to say, the US and China have never agreed on Internet governance.  To put it bluntly, the US believes in a free Internet (with exceptions), and China believes in a regulated Internet (with exceptions). 

Yet the Murdoch Doctrine could encompass these disagreements.  All the Doctrine stipulated was that disputes had to be resolved in a peaceful manner; the two nations could not afford to fight, especially when terror-minded rogue nations would be the resulting beneficiaries.   

That is, the goal of the Murdoch Doctrine was not to achieve some sort of superficial brotherhood of nations—the United Nations, of course, had become a bad joke even before it was disbanded—but rather, to guarantee that the US and China would not fight each other, but instead, focus on common enemies. 

As we have seen over this last half-century, the US and China have still undertaken their share of fighting; it’s just not been one against the other. 

Indeed, the many triumphs of the Joint Counter-Terrorism Strike Force, starting with Malaysia, have added luster to the fighting forces of the two great nations, encouraging both to pursue their pathfinding joint ventures—now in the realm of space exploration.

And to think: This great epoch in world history began with a few tweets.   


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