A recent article in the South China Morning Post is a good example of Chinese propaganda. Beginning with the assumptions in the title and continuing with its selective use of information and benign terms it reveals the playbook of how China tries to change the narrative surrounding its aggression.
The title itself contains two questionable assumptions. “A stronger China has no reason to seek a sphere of influence even as U.S. power wanes.” As I just wrote, this assumes that China is suddenly stronger, and the U.S. has or will soon decline. But this ignores numerous factors that could suggest otherwise. China’s GDP has dropped, their one child policy has led to a demographic time bomb, their command driven economy has created a bubble that will dwarf the U.S. housing crisis, and their aggressive tactics and culpability have pushed allies towards the U.S. In short, China could falter in numerous ways and that is before considering the supposed inevitability of U.S. decline. The writer doesn’t present data to support either assumption even though it’s the foundation of their case.
Spheres of Influence
The author then proceeds to describe various spheres of influence on its borders that it supposedly cedes to other countries. It lists North Korea, India, and Russia specifically as holding their own spheres of influence. And the Chinese graciously and peacefully acknowledge those spheres. But the author fails to mention that China has fought offensive preemptive wars with every one of those neighbors since 1949. They fought India in 1962 and are in a current crisis adjusting the Line of Control (LOC). The border dispute with Russia in 1969 led to a decade long standoff and near nuclear war. And of course, American soldiers fought the Chinese in North Korea. Clearly China has an active, armed, and aggressive interest in their neighbors. And this was when they were still suffering from the effects of their civil war and disastrous domestic policies like the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and before they thought the strategic balance of power had shifted in their favor.
The author then shifts to defending China’s most obvious aggression in the South China Sea. They label their militarization of the islands as “legal land reclamation” that everybody takes part in, in the region. Anybody listening to politicians knows that many aggressive policies choices such as massive taxation, are given innocuous phrases such as “asking to pay their fair share.” Legal reclamation projects ignore a host of conflicting facts. It is true that other countries have artificially built up islands. But nobody has done it to the extent that the Chinese have. The latter have also militarized them to a far greater degree with airstrips, radar, anti-aircraft guns, and even submarine pens backed up by what is the largest military of the region. The International Court has rejected most of Chinese claims in the South China Sea and yet they haven’t stopped their activities.
The author labels the U.S. Freedom of Navigation patrols as “military operations against littoral states” which is another twisting of the facts. If the U.S. and its allies didn’t perform these operations, it would give de facto approval for Chinese actions. It would create a free for all in the region where might makes right. This would naturally support the biggest naval force. This author is labeling the U.S. support of international law, and the biggest impediment to Chinese sphere of influence as aggression.
Finally, the author does what many Chinese writers do. He referred to thousands of years of Chinese influence in the region such as the massive voyages of Zheng He in the 15th century, as a claim that they are peaceful. He says that the PLA only established a string of bases 600 years later. But just like their strategic signature of preemption against their neighbors in recent history, ancient history suggests they had the same kind of control. Confucian scholars often made the same claims, but their frequent invasions of neighbors on every side, from Korea to Vietnam, and into central Asia suggest they have a thousand-year history of imperialism that rivals Western powers. They had the singular misfortune of entering a period of weakness during a period of Western expansion which is why their history of 1843 to 1949 seems so dismal.
In the end, I think the author does a better job of showing how Chinese writers try to hide in plain sight. They have assumptions such as a weakened U.S. or culturally minded history that provide the foundation of their analysis. That analysis then ignores key facts such as China’s recent history of preemption into rival spheres of influence and the international court’s ruling against them. The final ingredient is typical spin you’d here from a political such as calling seizing disputed islands “land reclamation.” They excel in using victim rhetoric to shame Western rivals while at the same time justifying their own aggression. The result should be a good reminder of the need to be an active reader with command of the facts and a knowledge of the propaganda playbook.