Chinese Media Leverages "False Dilemma" Fallacy Against U.S. Allies

Posted on Friday, December 11, 2015 by R & B

(Image Source: Express)
By Alison Bartel

As the United States and Republic of Korea (ROK; or South Korea) deepened their alliances during President Park’s visit to Washington in late October, both through reaffirmation of strength of the alliance and through continued security cooperation, media sources in the People’s Republic of China (PRC; hereafter, China) were planting doubt about the longevity of the U.S.-ROK relationship. Similarly, during General Secretary Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the United Kingdom (UK), Chinese media portrayed the UK as caught between two allies, one on the rise and one in decline. One article at a time, through Party-run media outlets, the Chinese Communist Party is eliminating middle-ground solutions for complex diplomatic relations for U.S. allies. 

Propagating a zero-sum fallacy, also referred to as a “false dilemma fallacy” is a choice Chinese media warfare tactic. Chinese media, referencing guidelines from the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CCPPD), regularly constructs current international events as scenarios with two choices, rather than a range of policy options. This institutionalized persuasion method is aimed at driving a wedge between the U.S. and its key allies by using zero-sum rhetoric, creating the illusion that allies must choose between the U.S. and China. Domestically and internationally, Chinese state-run media achieves this goal by using “foreign experts,” some of whom are influenced by or have significant interests in the Party, and some of whom are unaware they are being quoted or whose quotes are taken out of context. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese publicity apparatus also overemphasizes points of view that support the Party narrative.

Chinese media coverage of President Park’s visit to the U.S. as well as General Secretary Xi’s visit to the UK offer prominent examples of the “false dilemma” framing tactic and its implications for U.S. policy. 

President Park’s Visit to the U.S.

The ROK and China have seen much progress in relations over the past decade. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, has hosted President Park six times since 2013, and touted Park’s attendance at Beijing’s military parade in September. But the U.S. and South Korea share an alliance, robust economic relationship and democratic and free-market values. According to the White House Joint Fact Sheet released after Park’s visit, the two allies worked to strengthen cooperation in the following areas: defense of the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s development of its own “Kill-Chain” preemptive strike system, South Korea’s potential membership in the TPP and countering China’s aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea. Considering the dynamic nature of both relationships, it is in the ROK’s interests to nurture relationships with both the U.S. and China.

Chinese media paints a different picture. There is a large gulf between the “win-win” rhetoric of Chinese diplomats and China’s media coverage of South Korean foreign affairs. During a press conference on Park’s visit on October 16, President Obama urged Park to “speak out” when China violated international norms. Initial media uproar from Chinese and South Korean sources alike prompted the Park administration to defend the comments, citing Obama’s principled concern with upholding international law. Chinese media sources, however, were quick to parse the perceived face-off between China and the U.S. over South Korean alliance. Articles with a wider focus attributed Obama’s comments to the U.S.’ growing unease over stronger China- South Korea relations. Carefully selecting quotes from Korean news sources, the articles both validated the negative effect of stronger China-ROK ties on ROK-U.S. relations. Then the articles followed with praise of the historic trend of ever-strengthening China-ROK relations that began prior to President Park’s time in office. Others were more biting, citing South Korea’s security dependence on China as evidence that even under an assumed China-US dichotomy, South Korea would have no choice but to side with China for nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

While the stronger ROK-China relationship has “raised eyebrows” in Washington, the alarmist narrative of South Korea’s growing relationship with China at the expense of its relationship with the U.S. was not U.S. media’s primary focus following President Park’s visit. Reporting on the same press conference referred to above, U.S. media emphasized the possibility of the ROK maintaining strong partnerships with both the U.S. and China. During the same press conference mentioned above, in addition to his comments on the South China Sea issue, President Obama also stated, “There’s no contradiction between the Republic of Korea having good relations with us, being a central part of our alliance and having good relations with China.” Chinese media neglected to report this caveat. It’s clear that though South Korea may be fostering closer relations with China, its current partnership with the U.S. is indispensable, and due to its strategic interests, it is unlikely that Korea will ostracize one ally in favor of the other.

General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Visit to the United Kingdom

Chinese Party-run media used similar tactics to frame Xi’s October 20-23 state visit to the UK. Utilizing another tactic of highlighting favorable perspectives that the Chinese media deems beneficial to China’s international interests, media reports promote the friendly views of its “foreign friends.” A long-standing tool dating from China’s Maoist propaganda roots in Yan’an, the tactic of “borrowing” foreign news sources allows the PRC to raise awareness of its narrative on a credible platform while increasing the efficiency of that narrative’s dissemination (Brady 2015).

For example, an article published during Xi’s visit titled “China is rising, America is declining, England is choosing,” was indicative of the CCP’s promotion of false dilemmas. Even more telling is the source. The named article was a translated version of Martin Jacques’ commentary in the Guardian where he argued that Britain cannot afford to pass up economic cooperation with China. The English version is illustrative of Chinese influence operations in itself, as Martin Jacques is a prominent China proponent and was once editor of Communist Party of Great Britain's journal, Marxism Today. The translated version, of course, makes some changes, editing out Jacques’ human rights concerns and any doubt whatsoever about an existing dichotomy. 

Implications for the United States

The prominence of Chinese media’s “false dilemma” messaging strategy, as well as China’s specific methods for implementing this tactic calls for increased awareness of media agencies’ funding sources, credibility and background of sources quoted in media coverage. Conventional knowledge expects the Chinese government-backed publications to tow the CCP line, but U.S. audiences often take for granted China’s growing influence in non-CCP publications. Foreign audiences consistently fail to calculate the impact of Chinese propaganda, which exists not only in Chinese state-run publications, but also in rhetoric and ideas that trickle into publications around the world. Though subtle, the false dilemma narrative uses zero-sum language that creates a two-choice illusion, tacitly restricting policymaker options in maintaining alliances in East Asia. Ironically, the same government that accuses the U.S. of having a “deeply-rooted Cold War mentality” is using its media to make strides towards reconstructing such a policy environment.

Brady, A. (2015). China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine. Journal of Democracy 26(4), 51-59. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved December 11, 2015, from Project MUSE database.

The South China Sea is Not Beijing's Next Battlefield

Posted on Monday, September 21, 2015 by Project2049Institute

(Image Source: Wikimedia/U.S. Coast Guard)

By Ian Easton

No one likes to admit they made a mistake, especially in Washington.  But what if America's top strategic thinkers have gotten China's military buildup all wrong?

The definition of military deception is "actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary decision makers...thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions (or inactions) that will contribute to the accomplishment of the mission." Could Beijing be using the South China Sea to this end?  By creating a constant stream of provocations in an area it cares relatively little about, China has diverted attention from an area it cares a lot about.  This could be leading the Pentagon toward bad planning assumptions and investments.  

The South China Sea Pivot

Since at least 2011 many of America's leading thinkers have become convinced that the South China Sea will dominate military and security affairs in the 21st century.  It is the new battleground, the Fulda Gap with Asian characteristics.  China's South Sea Fleet is the new Soviet 8th Guards Army.  Or so many have come to believe.

The Pentagon and State Department, as a result, have urgently ramped up their efforts to meet the new threat.  Special operations forces, diplomats, and congressional delegations have poured onto the scene, eager to play their roles in this new great game.  White House sanctioned security assistance and top-level visits have followed close behind.

This regional influence campaign has resulted in a breathtaking series of breakthroughs.  Burma has been re-opened for business.  Vietnam, having its arms embargo relaxed, has become a security partner.  U.S. Navy ships, fresh from dockyards in America, have taken up station in Singapore, ready to sally forth in an emergency.  The Marine Corps has established a strong presence in the Philippines and Australia.  Air Force fighters, bombers, and drones now shadow the skies above.  The horizon seems limitless for American geostrategic positioning across Southeast Asia. 

China seems more than willing to validate foreign fears.  Indeed, Beijing has turned up the volume on its strategic messaging system to full blast.  Washington foreign policy elites have been inundated with aggressive Chinese messages about the key importance of the South China Sea.  Just to make sure the point is fully understood, China has provoked a series of incidents with U.S. Navy ships in the area.  China has also preyed on vulnerable fishing boats in waters claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.    

Most shockingly, China has built a number of manmade islands in the disputed waters.  It is now rapidly turning them into military outposts Semi-submerged reefs and rock features, once labeled "dangerous grounds" on maritime maps, now appear dangerous for a very different reason.

Each of Beijing's moves appears carefully calibrated to maximize foreign fear and minimize Chinese risk.  Nothing has happened in this war of nerves that might result in a shooting war.  China knows it would lose such a fight.  But more important, and often missed by observers, the South China Sea is not a top priority. 

China's Main War Plan

China's military buildup is about Taiwan, not the South China Sea.  According to reports from the Pentagon and Office of Naval Intelligence, conquering Taiwan is the core mission that drives the People's Liberation Army (PLA).  Why? Because China's authoritarian leadership is deeply insecure.  Beijing views the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan), which exists as a independent and sovereign state, to be a grave threat to the communist party's vice grip on power.  Taiwan is dangerous because it serves as a beacon of freedom for Chinese speaking people everywhere. 

Taiwan is also a problem for China because it has a close defense and security relationship with the U.S. military.  There are over 3,300 Department of Defense visits to Taiwan a year.  And that number is growing fast.  In addition, a remarkable number of Taiwanese military personnel study and train in America, probably more than any other foreign country.  From Beijing's perspective, China's historic rise as a great power will not be complete until it can wrest Taiwan out of America's sphere of influence.  Only then can China break through the first island chain to become a regional hegemon, dominating Japan and South Korea.   

According to authoritative Chinese writings, the PLA focuses surprisingly little on the East Asian seascape.  The Science of Military Strategy is the most detailed and credible document available on Chinese military thought.  It takes pains to underscore the prime importance of land, not water.  China's "main strategic direction" (a euphemism for supreme national objective) is the invasion and occupation of Taiwan's entire territory.  Second order campaigns involve conflicts along China's 14 land borders.  Here the PLA is talking mostly about war with India.  Neither island disputes nor sea lanes are a critical priority.   

The Science of Military Strategy makes clear that PLA ground forces would play the leading role in a Taiwan campaign.  The ground forces, as a result, enjoy pride of place in the Chinese military.  That's one reason why infantry, tank, and amphibious units led the way at China's recent national day parade. The PLA Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery (China's strategic rocket troops) follow the ground forces in protocol order.  Their envisioned roles are to support the Army's needs. 

Each Chinese fighting service and branch considers the invasion of Taiwan their principal mission.  The Science of Military Strategy reveals the operation would involve information attacks (electronic and cyber warfare), missile bombardments, air strikes, sea blockades, and surprise amphibious landings.  The ground force is expected to face the brunt of the bloody battle, fighting from the coast into Taiwan's dense urban centers and mountains.  Assuming victory, the Army is also responsible for pacifying a post-war Taiwan, turning it into a Orwellian police state.     

The PLA Navy's mission is to support the invasion of Taiwan.  It would be responsible for executing naval blockade operations; providing air defense and transport ships for the invasion armada; shelling the coast; clearing mines and beach obstacles; and deterring, delaying, or disrupting American aircraft carrier groups.  These are all highly difficult tasks.  Most of these missions are probably outside China's grasp and will be for some time to come.     

It is little wonder then that the PLA Navy and Air Force view the safeguarding of China's island sovereignty as third order missions.  The PLA ground force, the team's star player, does not consider it a mission at all.  Nor does the Second Artillery.  Those who think the South China Sea is driving Beijing's military spending spree are missing the point.                       

Implications for America  

There are political, military, and legal implications of China's strategy for the United States.  By stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, China keeps American policymakers looking at the wrong problem set.  Beijing's motives, of course, are unknowable.  But the effects of its actions are plain to see.  More and more Americans are being drawn toward a place where China has an advantage and can exact leverage.  It is easy to negotiate, or not negotiate, when the outcome matters greatly to the other side and little to your side.  China might care less about the South China Sea than the United States and her allies do.  

Annexing Taiwan is vastly more important for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership.  It is China's weakest and most vulnerable point.  Beijing hides this by spreading misinformation about Taiwan.  One example includes the notion that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are moving more closely together economically, so political unification is inevitable.  In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.  The CCP's policies toward Taiwan are failing miserably.  Recent polling data reveals that unification never been more unpopular in Taiwan than it is today. 

Another common misperception is that the balance of military power has shifted decisively in the Taiwan Strait.  If that were true, as China's propaganda machine would have us believe, the PLA could invade Taiwan anytime it wanted.  However, recent studies on Taiwan's air and naval defense capabilities reveal that the ROC military is a whole lot tougher than it generally gets credit for.  China knows there is a long road ahead before it can credibly threaten Taiwan with invasion.  And Uncle Sam can tip the scales at any time.

Washington, it seems, has been influenced by China's misinformation campaign.  War games, exercises, and studies now focus on the South China Sea at the expense of Taiwan.  As a result, there is a large and growing asymmetry of knowledge and information regarding Taiwan scenarios.  The PLA has legions of Taiwan experts.  The Pentagon has a dwindling handful.

The U.S. government has self-imposed restrictions that make the problem even worse.  Navy ships are prohibited from docking in Taiwan's harbors, even in the event of severe weather.  More absurd still, admirals and general are not allowed to visit Taiwan and meet the men whom they would be expected to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with in a war.  In a crisis, the President of the United States is going to be on the phone with commanders in Hawaii who, while otherwise superb, have no firsthand knowledge of the battlefield.                   

Much of the hardware needed for fighting China in the defense of Taiwan has been put on the backburner as well.  Despite the obvious threat, front-line American war fighting assets in the Western Pacific, from satellites to command posts to aircraft hangars, remain unhardened.  U.S. forces are woefully behind the PLA in long-range anti-ship missiles.  The littoral combat ship is being deployed to Asia first, not frigates and destroyers capable of high intensity combat.  Clearly some planning assumptions have been made which favor the South China Sea over a Taiwan scenario.

The Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8) mandates that, "It is the policy of the United States to maintain the resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social and economic system, of the people of Taiwan."  The Pacific Command, by law, must be able to certify an ability to defend Taiwan in the most stressful situations imaginable.  That is why operational concepts like Air-Sea Battle/JAM-GC are so important.  Yet studies show that not enough human software and military hardware are being programmed to keep pace with this increasingly difficult mission.        

China's actions are moving minds toward the South China Sea and away from its true strategic objective.  This may be purposeful.  If true, that would be disquieting and unwelcome news. But even if it is not, America's policies and military thinking still risk being compromised by the tyranny of the inbox. Without a better understanding of what really animates China's military buildup, the U.S. security position could weaken, and the prospects for a peaceful and stable East Asia could grow ever more remote.  It is time for the U.S. government to rebalance to the Taiwan Strait.        

Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. This article was originally published in The National Interest on September 19, 2015.  

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