PRC Wages Psychological Warfare Against the U.S. Military
China is taking advantage of the U.S. military's recent challenges with COVID-19 to wage a strategic psychological warfare campaign against the U.S. military to undermine its credibility in the Indo-Pacific Region and to weaken the morale of U.S. military personnel. At the same time, China is attempting to increase its grip over the region with aggressive displays towards its smaller neighbors, and frequent military exercises. These actions are part of China's larger long-term goal of achieving dominance and hegemony over the region by weakening America's military alliances and partnerships.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, China’s state-run media published several articles that cast doubt on the warfighting capability of the U.S. military. On April 15th China’s Global Times claimed that the U.S. capability to wage war had greatly declined and that the deployment of the USS America, an amphibious assault ship, to the Western Pacific was an attempt to hide U.S. military weakness. On May 2nd, the Global Times attacked the U.S. military's image again by describing it as "battered" and claimed that the coronavirus had utterly defeated the U.S. aircraft carrier fleet.
Chinese media attacks on the U.S. military have employed rhetoric and imagery to create the perception that China is more powerful and dominant in the region than the U.S. China often claims that the U.S. is fearful of losing its presence in the region, and paints U.S. military deployments and actions in the Pacific as acts of desperation. While China makes the dubious claim that its own military has zero cases of COVID-19, it describes the U.S. military as “fragile” and unprepared when dealing with the coronavirus. Chinese descriptions of US FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) create the image that China is in control of the situation by claiming that they have “expelled” U.S. forces from the vicinity of PLA-occupied areas in international waters.
China’s long-term goal is to undermine the confidence of America’s Indo-Pacific allies and friends in the U.S. ability to support them militarily. Some observers in Asia have expressed concern that the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. military may lead to a historical opportunity for China to change the balance of power in the region. China is trying to strengthen these views by suggesting that the U.S. Navy’s current challenges with the coronavirus will lead to an inability to maintain its long-term power in the Indo-Pacific. A Chinese military expert claimed that U.S. Navy aircraft carriers will lose the ability to maintain combat readiness and that this would lead to the loss of U.S. Naval hegemony and create a power vacuum in the Indo-Pacific.
As China attacked the credibility of the U.S. military, it sought to strengthen the image of its own forces by claiming that its military was completely free of the coronavirus and that its combat readiness had actually improved. It also undertook aggressive displays of force and frequent military exercises to project an image of dominance in the region. Chinese military strategists view coercion and intimidation through the show of force as a fundamental part of psychological warfare. China’s recent bullying of its smaller neighbors is a reflection of this strategy. On February 17th, a Chinese warship targeted a Philippine Navy corvette in the West Philippine Sea inside the Philippines' Exclusive Economic zone and demanded that the Philippine navy vessel leave the area. In early April, a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, which was fishing near the Paracel Islands near Vietnam. Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats also spent several weeks harassing a Malaysian oil exploration ship, which was searching for oil on the seafloor in international waters.
China has also increased intimidating displays against Taiwan. On February 10th, Chinese fighter jets crossed the unofficial center line between China and Taiwan, and PLA ships and aircraft conducted a joint exercise to the southeast of Taiwan as a warning to Taiwan Independence forces. In March, the PLA Air Force conducted air exercises to the southwest of Taiwan, and according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, there were as many as four “targeted” drills by China around Taiwan, which Taipei considered as “concrete evidence of provocations and threats.” In April, the Chinese aircraft carrier task group, led by the Liaoning sailed around Taiwan, first passing through the Miyako Strait near Japan, and then passing through the Bashi Channel before conducting training in the South China Sea.
Attacks on U.S. Military Morale
One of the priorities of Chinese psychological warfare is to decrease enemy morale. China is trying to attack the morale of American military members by undermining their trust in senior U.S. military and political leadership. Chinese state media has repeatedly accused American political and military leaders of not caring about the safety and welfare of military personnel. A China Global Times Network (CGTN) article from April 9th accused the U.S. Navy of recklessly failing to take preventive actions to ensure the safety of its sailors. The following week, a Global Times piece went further and charged U.S. leaders of acting irresponsibly and risking the health and safety of U.S. Navy sailors who continued to patrol the seas. In another Global Times article, a senior research fellow at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute similarly accused American military leaders of putting the lives of soldiers at risk for conducting patrols in the South China Sea. Several days later, the Global Times and China Military, a PLA-sponsored website, tried to make the situation look worse by claiming that hawkish forces in the U.S. were disregarding the lives of their soldiers by maintaining patrols in the Western Pacific as coronavirus infections in the U.S. military were “rising fast with continuously growing deaths.”
The United States has acted swiftly to counteract the notion that it is unable to maintain power and presence in the region. The U.S. Air Force conducted frequent bomber patrols and reconnaissance missions in the Western Pacific while the Roosevelt was in Guam. More recently, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was deployed from Japan for sea trials and will soon be available for patrol.
The PRC will undoubtedly take every opportunity to continue waging psychological warfare against U.S. military members, and to undercut America’s alliances and partnerships by attacking the credibility of the U.S. military. And with its growing global media influence, Chinese propaganda and psychological warfare will reach larger audiences in the United States, and worldwide. For this reason, U.S. and allied military forces must increase their awareness of Chinese psychological warfare and take cooperative steps to counter China’s psychological warfare offensive.
Aaron Jensen is a Ph.D. candidate at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.