- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Chinese Foreign Ministry and state-controlled news outlets have dramatically ramped up efforts in recent months to echo Russian propaganda about the Ukraine war and promote Beijing’s increasingly aggressive anti-American narratives.

Analysts say it is a defining characteristic of “Cold War 2.0,” with Beijing and Moscow moving into full rhetorical alignment against the U.S. and the network of democracies around the world that side with Washington.

A special Chinese Foreign Ministry report last week blamed the U.S. and NATO for provoking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year and said it was part of a pattern of political, military, economic, technological and cultural “coercion” to preserve America’s position as the globe’s dominant superpower.

The report, published in English on the ministry’s website under the title “U.S. Hegemony and Its Perils,” more broadly claimed that Washington is ramping up “bloc politics” and stoking conflict in several regions to maintain American dominance.

“While a just cause wins its champion wide support, an unjust one condemns its pursuer to be an outcast,” the report concludes. “The hegemonic, domineering and bullying practices of using strength to intimidate the weak, taking from others by force and subterfuge, and playing zero-sum games are exerting grave harm.”

The State Department calls such claims “propaganda” that reflects an increasingly visceral effort by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to shape the debate in a widening global information war between Washington and Beijing.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials have a long history of delivering anti-American speeches and circulating white papers that attack Washington and its policies to a domestic Chinese audience. Beijing has also spent recent years, most notably during the COVID-19 era, aligning with and projecting Iranian and Russian anti-American propaganda with similar lines of attack.

What is different now, regional analysts say, is that Beijing is originating the propaganda and is carefully releasing it in English for consumption by an audience far beyond the Chinese mainland. In recent days, Chinese officials have attacked the U.S. for increasing support for Taiwan, “overreacting” to the recent surveillance balloon incident, the campaign against TikTok and new speculation in Washington that a virus leak from a Chinese laboratory led to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The big picture is that the Chinese are not just parroting various narratives; they’re coming up with their own,” said Dan Blumenthal, a senior fellow focused on China, Taiwan, East Asia, and U.S.-Chinese relations at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Their No. 1 narrative right now is that the U.S. is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine — that Ukraine is a pawn of U.S. plans for NATO expansion and what the Chinese refer to as ‘bloc politics,’ and that the U.S. is doing the same thing in the Indo-Pacific,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

“The Chinese are warning other countries to not be pawns, and they’re prosecuting this case quite intensely, both in Chinese and throughout the neutral world outside the West, and it probably is having some resonance with countries that exist beyond the West and America’s Asian alliances.”

In essence, China is pushing a message that Russia has “done the right thing” by invading Ukraine, Mr. Blumenthal said, and China and Russia have achieved “total strategic alignment” behind the view that the U.S.-oriented alliance system “has to be smashed.”

The assessment coincides with heightened concern and harsh rhetoric in Washington about the depths of China’s support for Russia’s war and a growing chorus of warnings from U.S. intelligence that China may soon begin providing Russian military forces with weaponry for a widening offensive.

“We’re confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment,” CIA Director William J. Burns said in an interview last week with CBS News, though he added that there were no signs that such transfers had begun.

He made the comments amid speculation about Beijing’s deeper strategic motivations in the Ukraine war, which has ruptured Russia’s vast energy ties to the European Union. China, meanwhile, is importing record amounts of Russian natural gas at discounted rates.

The reach of China’s anti-American influence campaign was on dramatic display at a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, questioned Biden administration officials about reports that weapons were being sent to a group of fighters in Ukraine that the U.S. had sanctioned because of their far-right, ultranationalist views. It turned out that the “source” for Mr. Gaetz’s inquiry was a story in the CCP-controlled Global Times, a prime outlet for the regime’s most anti-American messaging.

“I don’t have any evidence one way or the other” on the report, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told Mr. Gaetz. “As a general matter, I don’t take Beijing’s propaganda at face value.”

Former CIA officer Daniel Hoffman, who served as the agency’s station chief in Moscow and now writes a regular column for The Washington Times, said Russia is facing a future as a vassal state for China.

“For Beijing, Russia’s massive, unexpected reverses on the battlefield since invading Ukraine in February 2022 offer an opportunity to dominate the Kremlin and turbo-boost its own grand strategy of becoming the world’s dominant power by 2049,” Mr. Hoffman wrote in a recent column.

Mr. Blumenthal offered a different take in an interview with The Times. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has become dependent on the Chinese market for the sale of oil and gas, he said, he has been reluctant to be the “junior partner” in the China-Russia relationship.

“‘Vassal’ is probably too strong a word,” Mr. Hoffman said, but China is dependent on Russia’s battlefield success in Ukraine.

Information war

On the information warfare front, Chinese officials have expressed outrage in recent years at Washington’s characterization of Mr. Xi’s signature Belt and Road foreign policy strategy as a global system of predatory Chinese development lending. Mr. Xi has touted the initiative as a way to use China’s vast financial reserves to reestablish ancient trade routes and finance badly needed bridges, railroads, ports and other infrastructure in the developing world.

U.S. officials and some private analysts say Beijing’s loans to poorer nations are designed to win sweetheart deals for Chinese contractors and ensnare borrowers in a “debt trap” so Beijing can later wring political and natural resource concessions in exchange for debt relief.

Alignment between Beijing and Moscow, meanwhile, has intensified since the Feb. 4, 2022, signing of a joint statement on “international relations entering a new era.” It emphasized that the Sino-Russian friendship has “no limits.” Mr. Blumenthal described the document as “the coming-out party of Cold War 2.0.”

Within weeks, Russian tanks were grinding violently across the border into Ukraine and China began amplifying Kremlin propaganda about the war.

In early March last year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry repeatedly and forcefully echoed Russian claims that the U.S. was financing a secret network of biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. U.S. officials quickly rejected the claims as unfounded conspiracy theories.

By early this year, Beijing’s amplification operations had grown to include official foreign ministry projections of disinformation benefiting the Kremlin and beleaguered Russian allies such as Syria.

During a daily briefing for Chinese and international journalists on Jan. 17, a ministry spokesman responded to what appeared to be a staged question from the government-controlled outlet China Central Television about a Syrian state media report saying U.S. “occupation forces” were stealing oil from the Middle Eastern nation.

The ministry spokesman responded on cue: “We are struck by the blatancy and egregiousness of the U.S.’s plundering of Syria. According to Syrian government data, in the first half of 2022, over 80% of Syria’s daily oil output was smuggled out of the country by U.S. occupation troops. Earlier this month, U.S. forces used 60 tankers and trucks to ship oil and wheat they looted from Syria. … The Syrian people’s right to life is being ruthlessly trampled on by the U.S.”

U.S. officials cringed at the Chinese accusations.

A “fact check” by Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-government-funded outlet, noted that the government of Bashar Assad “has no control over the northeast area of [Syria], which is occupied by the anti-government coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).”

The fact check noted U.S. and international media reports saying “a U.S. company had secured an oil deal in the area, but it did so with the approval of the SDF, which helped to oust ISIS terrorist forces that previously controlled the oil production there. The U.S. currently authorizes non-governmental organizations to purchase petroleum in Syria, but the products have to stay in Syria for non-profit use.”

The competition between the West and Beijing for the global narrative reflects what some analysts describe as a growing alignment of the world’s top autocracies — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — brought closer together by Moscow’s war in Ukraine and Washington’s success in rallying NATO and other allies to support Kyiv.

Political messaging coordination among China, Russia and Iran was accelerating before the war, most notably during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic to deflect attention from how the pandemic first took hold inside China. At the time, U.S. officials warned that the three nations were promoting false claims, including that the coronavirus was an American bioweapon brought to China by U.S. Army personnel.

The head of a State Department counterdisinformation office told The Washington Times in March 2020 that Beijing, Moscow and Tehran were using a vast web of social media accounts, fake news outlets and state-controlled global satellite media to promote that and other false claims by academics and, at times, government officials to blame Washington for the pandemic.

Lea Gabrielle, a special envoy who was heading the department’s Global Engagement Center, said U.S. officials scrambled at the time to counter Russian and Chinese lies about the virus that were intended to make Beijing appear superior to the United States as a global power.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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