• The Navy photo shows a destroyer captain watching nonchalantly as a Chinese carrier sails by
  • The photo is an instance of "cognitive warfare," said an analyst
  • Sizable U.S. and Chinese forces are now in the South China Sea 

A picture is worth a thousand words, the adage goes. Amid an increasingly belligerent China trying to assert its expansionist claims in the South China Sea and the United States looking to counter that and reassure its allies in the region if there is one picture that can capture what one antagonist thinks of another, this is it.

The U.S. Navy released a photo last week showing the captain of the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin watching a Chinese aircraft carrier from the deck of his ship. But to understand the true picture of the picture's nuances here's some background. The U.S. sent an aircraft carrier group earlier this month into the South China sea, where tensions are running high between China and the Philippines.

USS Mustin - Liaoning
Cmdr. Robert J. Briggs and Cmdr. Richard D. Slye monitor surface contacts from the pilothouse of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Arthur Rosen

The reason: a flotilla of Chinese ships, allegedly manned by armed militia members is in waters in the Philippines exclusive economic zone. The Chinese say they are sheltering from bad weather in the reefs there, which are also claimed by China. The tactics are similar to what China tried successfully to occupy other nearby reefs nearby during the term of President Obama. Those islands are now firmly under Chinese control and have been militarized.

Amid protests from Manila and general doubt among U.S. allies in the region about the United States' willingness to go to war with China over some reefs, the Navy sent in the USS Theodore Roosevelt. And the Chinese responded by sending the Liaoning, one of their two carriers, into the Taiwan straits for war drills. In addition, Taipei’s Ministry of National Defense said 11 PLA planes flew into Taiwan’s southwest air defense identification zone Friday.

The Navy, which has run "Freedom of Navigation" operations in the South China Sea to counter Beijing's expansionist claims sent the USS Mustin to tail the Liaoning. Washington also sent an amphibious assault vessel USS Makin Island through the Strait of Malacca into the contentious waters Thursday, accompanied by an amphibious transport dock USS San Diego.

The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) conducted a coordinated exercise in the South China Sea on April 9.

And then came the picture. Taken somewhere in the Philippine Sea and released April 4, it shows the Mustin's captain Commander Robert J Briggs and deputy Commander Richard D Slye watching the Liaoning, as it sailed a short distance away.

Commander Briggs was a picture of nonchalance. He had his feet up and looked very relaxed. The two officers looked like bored tourists on a cruise ship's deck watching another ship sail by. The photo beautifully captured what the U.S. Navy thinks of China's much-discussed carrier — or wants the world to think how it views the Chinese navy's new toys.

To be clear, the photo caption doesn't identify the ship the two officers are watching as the Liaoning. But it has a a ski-jump ramp like the Liaoning. Other carriers with a ski-jump ramp, like the Indian Navy's INS Vikramaditya and the Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth, are not known to be operating the South China Sea currently.

“This staged photograph is definitely ‘cognitive warfare’ to show the U.S. doesn’t regard the PLA as an immediate threat,” Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, told South China Morning Post.

The report also quoted Andrei Chang, the editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, who said the photo was "warning to the PLA" that the U.S. was thoroughly informed about the Liaoning strike group.

Although China boasts of having the world's largest navy, those numbers don't tell the full tale. Currently, the PLA Navy has two aircraft carriers, one cruiser, 32 destroyers, 49 frigates, 37 corvettes, and 86 missile-armed coastal patrol ships. China’s fleet relies mostly on smaller classes of ships, like the frigate and corvette.

The U.S. Navy boasts a surface fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, 92 cruisers and destroyers, and 59 small surface combatants and combat logistics ships.

The Liaoning displaces roughly 66,000 tons against the 112,000 tons of the new Ford-class supercarriers of the U.S. Navy. It carries fewer aircraft than a U.S. carrier and has a ski-jump flight deck, limiting the weapons load that its planes can carry. The sole Chinese fighter able to operate from an aircraft carrier is the Shenyang J-15, but its abilities seem inadequate against the Navy's F-35.