Chinese commentators have accused the United States of “cognitive warfare” after the US Navy released a puzzling photo.
The photo shows two naval officers, one with his feet up, calmly watching a Chinese aircraft carrier somewhere in the South China Sea. One Hong Kong newspaper said the photo sends a clear message: “We’re watching you.”
“This staged photograph is definitely ‘cognitive warfare’ to show the US doesn’t regard the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] as an immediate threat,” Lu Li-shih, a former teacher at the Republic of China Naval Academy, told the South China Morning Post.
Mr Lu said the comfortable poses of the two naval officers – commanders Robert Briggs and Richard Slye of the USS Mustin – are meant to show how little fear the United States feels about the Liaoning, a Chinese warship.
“In the photo, Commander Briggs looks very relaxed with his feet up watching the Liaoning ship just a few thousand yards away, while his deputy is also sitting beside him, showing they take their PLA counterparts lightly,” he said.
China has persistently tested the limits of its power in the South China Sea, which includes many disputed territories. Over the past several years, the country has built up artificial islands in areas claimed by other countries, including Japan and the Philippines, and then swarmed those islands with warships.
Just last month, China refused to remove 183 of its vessels from the Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines says is well within its territory. The US sided with the Philippines.
“Beijing pretty clearly thinks that if it uses enough coercion and pressure over a long enough period of time, it will squeeze the Southeast Asians out,” Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told the New York Times. “It’s insidious.”
If the US is worried about the buildup, it didn’t look that way in Sunday’s Navy photo – but experts say the fact that the picture exists at all may be a sign of concern. Chris Cavas, an American journalist who covers Navy issues, said the US doesn’t usually acknowledge its monitoring of Chinese ships.
“Very unusual image of the commanding officer and executive officer of #destroyer USS #MUSTIN DDG89 as they shadow #Chinese #carrier #LIAONING 16 in the Philippine Sea on 4 April,” Mr Cavas tweeted. “US #Navy rarely acknowledges both its efforts to shadow Chinese ships and Chinese shadowing US ships.”
Then, almost as soon as the photo made waves, it was gone. Later on Sunday, the snap was no longer on the Navy’s press page, the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.
“Uh-oh,” Mr Cavas tweeted, “DVIDS has pulled the MUSTIN bridge wing pic…”
The photo is still visible on the Navy’s official “Photo Gallery” page, however. And in any case, if it was meant to send a message, China has already received it.