China Ramps Up a War of Words, Warning the U.S. of Its Red Lines

The soldiers run through the forest, through the surf, through smoke and flames, ready to die for the motherland. The video, which is part of a series that appeared online recently in China, culminates with the launch of nine ballistic missiles and a fiery barrage of explosions.

“When war breaks out,” sings a choir, “that is my answer.”

Chinese propaganda is rarely subtle or particularly convincing, but the flow of bombast online and in state media in recent weeks has been noticeable and potentially threatening.

The targets are China’s main adversaries: the United States and Taiwan, which are moving ever closer together.

Propaganda has accompanied a number of military exercises over the past few weeks, including ballistic missile launching and the buzzing of Taiwanese airspace. Together, they should draw red lines for the United States, signaling that China would not shy away from a military clash.

While the prospect of war remains slim, the militaristic tone reflects the falsehood of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. The risk is that the propaganda could lead to more provocative actions at a time when relations with the United States have deteriorated significantly. Recent military moves in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait increase the possibility of actual clashes, whether intentional or not.

In Washington, President Trump’s hospitalization for Covid-19 has overshadowed everything else, creating the impression that his government is in chaos and raising fears of a decision gap. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cut off his trip to Asia this week, although he is expected to press to confront China when he meets his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan in Tokyo.

China is already under pressure from Taiwan and is pushing for other controversial territorial claims, from the South China Sea to the Himalayas. If China feels directly challenged on either of these fronts, Mr. Xi may not be able to back off after preparing the public for a combative stance.

A video showed a simulated air strike on Guam, American Pacific Territory, with clips from two Hollywood films, “The Rock” and “The Hurt Locker”.

Global Times, the voice of the Communist Party’s hawks, recently warned that the United States is “playing with fire” in supporting Taiwan, which Beijing claims to be part of a unified China. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, the editorial went on, would be “wiped out” if she cracked down on Chinese sovereignty.

“I don’t think it’s just bluster, and I don’t think it’s just about venting anger,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the an expert is on Taiwan and China. “I think the pressure is growing – and Xi Jinping finds it useful to show that pressure.”

More bombast will come. The most recent spurt of propaganda coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, also known in China as the war on US aggression and aid to Korea, and which has long served as a tool to fuel anti-American sentiment.

Chinese armed forces intervened in the war on October 19, 1950 and, as official reports here show, drove the American-led United Nations forces back to the 38th parallel in a heroic triumph of the newly founded People’s Republic of China. Given the new lows between the US and China, officials and propagandists are using the anniversary to remind the Chinese people that the nation previously stood up to the world’s superpower – and has prevailed.

In Dandong, a Chinese city across the Yalu from North Korea, a memorial museum dedicated to the conflict recently reopened. A number of films about the war are also running – “to fuel the great spirit of resistance to US aggression,” as one documentary describes it.

A new war drama is played by Wu Jing, the lead actor in the action film franchise “Wolf Warrior,” which has recently given Chinese diplomacy a name. It tells the story of a technical combat unit that kept an important bridge intact during one of the final battles of the Korean conflict.

“Never underestimate the Chinese people’s determination to maintain national security,” Global Times editor Hu Xijin wrote on Twitter last week after a ceremony to commemorate the return of the remains of Chinese soldiers who died in South Korea.

Mr. Hu, whose views are not official but correspond to those of the country’s hawks, regularly warned the United States against going to war with China. In his most recent unsubstantiated claim, he warned that Mr Trump could launch a drone attack on Chinese bases in the South China Sea.

As always, the Chinese Communist Party has the option to vote – and shout it down – propaganda to suit its national and geopolitical goals.

China, for example, was far less bellicose in its testimony about India this summer, despite the deadly clashes along its border. With the United States, however, the tone has stepped up significantly, as the Trump administration cracked down on the Chinese almost daily – from closing the Chinese consulate in Houston to banning TikTok and WeChat.

Chinese propaganda often uses battle language and images. The fight against the coronavirus has been declared a people’s war. Mr. Xi also recalls a military struggle to overcome threats. Last month, he listed five conditions that China would “never accept”, including any effort to divide or harass the Chinese people.

However, the spate of videos released by the People’s Liberation Army has left little doubt about its message. At least two have recorded the chorus “If War Broke Out Today”, including one for the secret submarine service – with blurry details on equipment and geography. They have been viewed a million times.

Another video was even more explicit. It showed an H6 strategic bomber bombing attack showing a satellite photo of a runway at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam. After the post briefly went viral, it was removed without explanation.

The new propaganda campaign also emerged in the midst of increasing military activity.

That summer, China and Taiwan each held annual training drills simulating cross-strait attacks. In a video released by the Chinese East Theater Command, troops rehearsed a landing on a beach on Hainan, the island off China’s south coast, whose geography is similar to that of Taiwan.

Since then, China has repeatedly tested Taiwan’s defenses with air and sea patrols. Twice last month, squadrons of fighters and bombers crossed the unofficial cross-strait center line, which both countries have largely observed for decades.

China’s tone took off with two visits by American officials, including one in August by Alex M. Azar II, Minister of Health and Human Services, who was the highest official the United States recognized in 1979 as the People’s Republic of China.

Chinese officials have repeatedly denounced American support for Taiwan, saying it boosts the island’s independence mood. Beijing seems particularly concerned about renewed political debate in Washington over whether the United States should expressly express its willingness to protect Taiwan from military attack. The Global Times editorial suggested that a higher-level visit by the minister of state or defense would give China cause to respond with violence.

A harsher tone has spread not only in the state media, but also among Chinese scholars and analysts with government-affiliated think tanks who influence political debates.

Zhu Songling, director of the Taiwan Studies Institute at Beijing Union University, said in a telephone interview that the Trump administration was testing “China’s bottom line.” “The United States has played the Taiwan cards too often and too hard,” he said.

An editorial by the Council to Promote Peaceful National Unification reported on the wars in Korea, India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979 to warn that China would not be intimidated. “The United States, India and Vietnam have experienced strategic misjudgments and irreparable prices in their military competitions with China,” it said.

Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, argued in an article that the risk of conflict over the island was increasing. In a telephone interview, he said that China could prevent Taiwan and the United States from underestimating their determination by declaring their willingness to use force when pressed.

“Unfortunately, the United States could mislead Tsai Ing-wen into misjudging the strategic situation,” said Professor Shen. “In an extreme situation, every country has the right to shoot first.”

Others are pushing back against escalating rhetoric, warning that this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The ‘wolf warrior spirit’ contradicts traditional Chinese culture,” wrote Yuan Nansheng, a former Chinese diplomat who now works at the China Institute of International Studies, in an article published in late September. “If it includes public opinion, the consequences will be worrying.”

Claire Fu and Chris Buckley did research and coverage.