The China-US Media War and its Impact on the Global Disarmament Campaign
Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons
In recent years, public opinion of China and the US’ foreign policies has deteriorated, due not just to the countries’ choices in policymaking, but also to the so-called media war taking place to influence global audiences. The majority of the media in China is owned by the state. In the democratic US, even if media organisations are not controlled by the government, they cannot be considered to be independent from financial puppeteers who also have foreign policy interests.
There will always be tensions between two of the world’s global superpowers, but media bias, misinformation, and vilification on both sides only exacerbate such tensions. The momentum of the general narrative towards a hyper defensive posture by both the Chinese and US propaganda machines, more so now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, could result in a possible arms race and a ‘new cold war’, potentially halting and reversing disarmament aspirations and actions.
Relations between nations depend in part on public opinion, and the relationship between the people of the US and China appears to be increasingly problematic. In 2016, 50% of Chinese people had a favourable impression of the United States, but this figure has now dropped to 37% (Bowei Xing 2022). Another poll showed that 76% of those surveyed in the US have an unfavourable view of China (Silva et al. 2021). The media has to take partial responsibility for these misplaced feelings of distrust, fear and insecurity; feelings which enter the political frame and drive foreign policy and national security initiatives.
It is common for a country’s media to portray foreign media as untrustworthy. Due to this, communication and exchanges of information between US and Chinese media sources remain rare, which further blurs the line between media and policy.
Not all media organisations and journalists act as spokespersons for their governments of course. Some media channels are independent, with their own opinions and philosophies. The media landscape is rapidly changing, with the internet and social media warping the traditional playbook in which government propaganda is used to drive foreign policy interests.
Censorship is a major obstacle to independent news and China’s surveillance and internet closures, such as the prohibition of YouTube and Google, deny the concept of freedom of information. For example, VPNs are needed to view foreign websites, but this is deemed an illegal act in China. Therefore, China’s people’s understanding of the US remains narrow. Information exchanges remain minimal from the East to the West, creating an environment of anxiety and fear between the people of both nations and prohibiting rational and objective criticism, especially in relation to national security.
The US goods and services trade with China totalled an estimated $615.2 billion in 2020 (Office of the United States Trade Representative), demonstrating how the US and Chinese economies remain interdependent. The risk of losing an important trade link may cause hesitancy in governments pointing the finger. However, according to the international accounting firm, Price Waterhouse Coopers, China’s economy is going to be at least 50% larger than that of the US economy by the end of this decade. China may soon be able to survive an economic break from the US and although there may be some truth in the fact that China wants to lift itself up rather than topple other powers, it cannot ignore the fact that with economic control comes global hegemony and an inevitable expansion of global military influence.
We could analyse the contradictions in the media surrounding China-US relations all day, but two of the key issues are nuclear weapons and Taiwan.
China’s obsession with secrecy and its refusal to disclose information on the size of its nuclear arsenal and its intentions for future expansion have made the US nervous. Under Donald Trump the US demanded China make its intentions clear and to join the New START Treaty in a three-way nuclear arms agreement alongside the US and Russia in setting limits to the size of its nuclear arsenal. The Treaty was extended for another 5 years in 2021, but Beijing refused participation. China clearly has intentions to increase the number of its nuclear silos, but most likely as an advanced strategic deterrent. Nuclear weapons are considered by the nine nuclear possessing nations as vital barriers to blackmail and coercion by rivals on the world stage and China remains committed to its no-first-use policy.
Even with a failure of public disclosure official records have the US nuclear capacity at 5,550 warheads, and the Chinese at only 350 (World Population Review 2022). Not to mention the US nuclear program has an estimated 100 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs that are forward-deployed at six NATO bases in five European countries (Arms Control Association) which conflicts with the legal obligations of the signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). We have already seen how nuclear deterrence has not worked in deterring Russia, and this strategic posture could further complicate the China-US relationship.Yet, the US government and the western media narrative continue to foster suspicions on China’s behaviour, contributing to its vilification.
The subject of Taiwan has also created a very divisive global situation. Xi Jinping views the reunification of China with Taiwan to be a critical part of his legacy, yet the US remains dedicated to the complete defence of Taiwan. Any move by Washington in aid of Taiwan would be seen as undermining Chinese power and domestic interests. The US media portrays China as the aggressor in this situation, yet China has just one military base abroad in Djibouti on the horn of Africa; while the US has over 750 bases in 80 countries, 193 of such bases being located just across the sea from China, in both Japan and South Korea (Hussein and Haddad 2021). The US has been busy building alliances in the South Pacific, along with making arms deals, such as the sale of 105 F-35 aircraft to Japan and the controversial AUKUS deal. These acts of US political expansion increase the number of anti-Western Chinese nationalists and further widen the gap between China and the West. The US has a very vague foreign policy strategy on Taiwan and China, and the mixed media reports are only ramping up the prospect of an arms race.
Not since the Vietnam War, 40 years ago, has China been involved in a shooting war. In comparison the last 40 years have seen the US involvement in military interventions in Panama, Granada, Libya, Afghanistan, two wars in Iraq, the Balkans, as well as all the drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Syria and more.
The evolution of Sino-American relationships is now likely to have a significant effect on the development of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and also to define the next century. Pessimists in high numbers are looking into future disarmament ambitions amid China-US tensions, with a consensus that any prospects into the regulation and reduction of nuclear weapons and military spending are to deteriorate, without any progress in diplomacy.
For the opposite to happen, the media environment needs to change drastically between the two countries. The levels of distrust generated by the media in the populace and the effects of this on the electorate and national and international relations is an underexposed issue which needs to be resolved. A collaboration between the media in the US and China is needed to act as a diplomatic base for the citizens living away from any such foreign policy influence. To stick to global disarmament initiatives there must be transparency in military build-up, freedom of information, and diplomatic relations committed to disarmament instead of simply crisis-management. Unfortunately, disarmament does not carry much weight in the media so activists and advocates need to create platforms and open the debate, voicing their aspirations, so disarmament discussion can become part of the mainstream.
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Hussein, M. & Haddad, M. (2021). Infographic: US Military Presence Around the World. Al Jazeera. 10 September. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/10/infographic-us-military-presence-around-the-world-interactive
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World Population Review. (2022). Countries With Nuclear Weapons 2022. Available at: https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/countries-with-nuclear-weapons
Xing, B. (2022). Webinar 2: The US-China Media War. New Cold War: Disarmament Amid US-China Tensions series, 2022. SCRAP Weapons YouTube. 24 February. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-W9IWinaabU&t=2702s&ab_channel=ScrapWeapons
Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons