Picture a movie about an elite team of navy commandos on a perilous rescue mission in Yemen. The commandos are straight out of central casting — young, attractive and fit. Their enemy is a sinister group of Islamic terrorists. In battle, the commandos’ tactics and courage overwhelm the hordes of terrorists, who all die unceremoniously in nameless heaps.

But this isn’t an American movie — it’s Operation Red Sea, a major Chinese blockbuster available on Netflix.

America, with its countless pro-military movies like Act of Valor, Top Gun, and Lone Survivor, is no stranger to the art of selling military nationalism through slick film productions. These Chinese movies are simply the modern Chinese equivalent, selling a new and robust Chinese vision.

A common theme in modern Chinese military movies is the country’s increasing prowess. In Operation Red Sea, the Chinese operators use Western military gear instead of standard-issue PLA equipment.

Chinese Propaganda films
The poster for the Chinese film ‘Operation Red Sea.’ Note the Western military equipment and weapons. The two rifles in the foreground are SCAR-H MK17 rifles which are used by U.S. Navy SEALs and SWCCs.

Similar to American movies that receive Pentagon funding, Operation Red Sea is no different: The Chinese Navy was a major contributor to the production, showcasing its equipment and technology.

The concept of the enemy is central to every war movie. But there are often multiple levels to this question. In Operation Red Sea, the enemies are superficially Islamic terrorists. However, although China has dealt with Islamic extremism among elements of the Uyghur independence movement, Islamic terrorism is primarily a Western issue. Instead, Operation Red Sea is a flex of China’s “global might,” best showcased by the ending scene featuring a group of Chinese ships patrolling the contested region of the South China Sea. A loudspeaker from one ship loudly warns all other vessels about “entering Chinese waters.” In Chinese military movies, the enemy will often be a foreign entity seeking to prevent China’s rightful rise to the global stage.

Perhaps the best example is Wolf Warrior 2 (available on Hulu.) The film hit a box office bonanza of $874 billion, making it the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. Wolf Warrior 2 features Chinese hero Leng Feng, a retired PLA special forces soldier who now lives in Africa. But he soon finds himself in the crossfire of a civil war.

However, the true enemy is a group of Western mercenaries led by Big Daddy, an American played by Marvel movie alum Frank Grillo. The position of an American main villain is deliberate as the United States is seen by the Chinese government as its primary foreign antagonist.