China’s ‘Three Warfares’ in Perspective


Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in “Ministry of Truth,” a special series on state-sponsored influence operations. Read the first installment here

China introduced the concepts of public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare when it revised the “Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army” in 2003. Knowledge of these “Three Warfares” — as they became known in Chinese military writings — slowly dispersed to Western security analysts. Just as Russia’s coercion of Estonia, Georgia, and then Ukraine catalyzed a discussion of hybrid warfare, China’s actions in the South China Sea spurred a conversation about the “Three Warfares” that reverberates to this day. For many Western analysts, the “Three Warfares” concept has become a proxy for understanding Beijing’s influence operations, or explaining Chinese “hybrid warfare.”

But this is the wrong approach. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with which the “Three Warfares” are most closely associated, is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The PLA is the party’s army; the party is not an extension of the PLA. Unlike a national army dedicated to the defense of a state and its people, the Chinese military’s purpose is to create political power for the party. When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.

Those concerned with Beijing’s efforts to shape foreign countries’ perceptions need to start with the CCP. Mao Zedong himself critiqued the prevailing Western approach long before the “Three Warfares” were introduced, attacking those who did not understand the need for the PLA to serve as the party’s backbone. In the Gutian Conference Resolution, otherwise known as On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party, Mao stated that those who held the purely military view “think the task of the Red Army … is merely to fight. They do not understand that the Chinese Red Army is an armed body for carrying out the political tasks of the revolution … The Red Army fights not merely for the sake of fighting but in order to … help [the masses, i.e. CCP] establish revolutionary political power.” The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.

Creating political power is precisely what the “Three Warfares” are intended to do. The first of the “Three Warfares,” media or public opinion warfare, attempts to shape public opinion both domestically and internationally. If the domestic element sounds odd, it is because the PLA believes energizing or mobilizing the Chinese public is useful for signaling resolve and deterring foreign incursions on Chinese interests. The second warfare attempts to influence foreign decision-makers and how they approach China policy. The third seeks to shape the legal context for Chinese actions, including building the legal justification for Beijing’s actions and using domestic laws to signal Chinese intentions. All of these fall under the broader umbrella of political warfare, which has been a part of the PLA’s lexicon going back decades. The “Three Warfares” were injected into a section of guidelines that has been consistent since at least the 1963 revision, which directs the Political Work Department to

Give full play to the combat function of political work: organize public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare; do a good job of dis-integrating the enemy’s activity; and prevent the enemy’s efforts to incite discord.

The CCP seeks to influence the outside world, especially the United States, for two major reasons. The first is preserving the power of the party. China’s political system is a core interest, as many documents ranging from the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China to the white paper China’s Peaceful Development make clear. Many of the threats to the CCP and its political system occur in the realm of ideas. They cannot be defeated by kinetic means. The separatism of some Chinese ethnic groups, such as Uighurs or Tibetans, challenges the CCP’s portrayal of a multiethnic society, while Taiwan challenges the party’s narrative that it represents all the Chinese people. Article two of the National Security Law passed in 2015 defines the nearly unlimited expanse of what the party considers threatening:

National security refers to the relative absence of international or domestic threats to the state’s power to govern, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, the welfare of the people, sustainable economic and social development, and other major national interests, and the ability to ensure a continued state of security.

Given the breadth and nature of what the CCP considers a threat, it should not be surprising that party leaders believe the PLA is too weak to protect the party-state on its own. This is the second reason for the party’s political warfare. The PLA spends a lot of energy examining its capabilities against its objectives and competitors, and they have been found wanting. In 2006, the Central Military Commission judged that Chinese military capabilities were “incompatible with winning local informatized [i.e. high-tech] wars and with fulfilling then-President Hu Jintao’s “New Historic Missions,” which included upholding the CCP’s political power. That judgment has evolved into others — most notably that “there are big gaps between the level of our military modernization compared to the requirements for national security.” If the PLA cannot be relied upon to fend off military threats, then those threats must be preempted in the minds of foreign policymakers who might choose to compete, contain, or attack China.

Still, China’s increasing reliance on political warfare cannot be explained without understanding the PLA’s foundational role. The PLA’s reemphasis on information operations and the “Three Warfares” became more pronounced in the early 2000s as a modernizing military looked to make political commissars more relevant to warfighting needs and military officers saw major features of the international system changing. When the “Three Warfares” first appeared, the PLA was in the middle of raising training standards and reducing the number of hours devoted to political education, one of the traditional roles of commissars. Information operations with its obvious political dimension led to the appearance of elements of what is now called “system of systems operations” — the PLA’s concept for joint operations. The PLA would introduce the concept of modular force groupings to conduct campaigns. One of the module forces identified in PLA writings in the 2010s was to conduct “Three Warfares” operations.

The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.

From the Gulf War onward, analysts in the PLA saw a trend they described as “peacetime-wartime integration.” Victory in war, or at least achieving one’s political objectives, increasingly depended on the preparations made in peacetime. Success required shaping how other governments and their people as well as one’s own population viewed the conflict. Information operations needed external and internal dimensions.

The importance of this trend was amplified by the “conventionalization of deterrence.” Chinese strategists were not dismissive of nuclear weapons. According to the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy, they believed the stakes of any potential conflict were unlikely to rise to the level where nuclear weapons could be a credible threat. Conventional forces and a potential adversary’s mindset would decide whether deterrence and coercive diplomacy worked.

The PLA may have an important role to play in mobilizing public opinion and shaping an adversary’s mindset, but it is far from the only relevant player. Focusing on the “Three Warfares” as a proxy for China’s information operations distracts analysts from the much larger organizational and operational infrastructure that exists under the CCP and the State Council.

A range of organizations across the party-state perform varying functions to shape the world beyond China’s shores. The Ministry of Education surveils, organizes, and rallies Chinese students on college campuses. The United Front Work Department, also in Mao’s words, serves “to rally our true friends to attack our true enemies,” which includes mobilizing overseas Chinese to support friendly politicians and official narratives as well as sponsoring research at foreign academic institutions. The Ministry of State Security uses academic fronts and think tanks to present official lines in appealing ways as well as conduct clandestine and covert operations. The official propaganda apparatus buys up overseas Chinese-language media to extend Beijing’s reach into Chinese communities worldwide. The Chinese resources for quietly influencing the world do not reside only or even primarily in the intelligence services or foreign ministry. The PLA is just one more piece of this alphabet soup of organizations.

Analysts should think of the “Three Warfares” as the way the PLA decided to conceptualize the different tasks of shaping the environment in which the army operates. Some of the examples used by defense analysts, such as the establishment of Sansha City in 2012, are clearly not the military’s lead. Elsewhere, the Propaganda Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provide the public rebuttals and the legal rationale for the PLA’s interception of foreign vessels, like the USNS Bowditch, in the South China Sea as domestic law enforcement operations.

If shaping perceptions is a larger enterprise than the PLA and is led from the party center, then what does the PLA bring to the table? The PLA possesses a large publishing empire, including numerous publishing houses and several newspapers apart from the PLA Daily. Moreover, a number of PLA officers, like Luo Yuan and Dai Xu, are talented propagandists who possess a flair for belligerent language that attracts attention both domestically and abroad, where international media picks up their remarks and presents them as China’s.

PLA capabilities also help shape foreign policymakers’ perception of risk and their assessment of options. Even if no one knows how well the PLA actually can employ them, Chinese military capabilities present a reality that cannot be ignored. For deterrence purposes and shaping the U.S. approach to China, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile may be one of the best examples. According to the best public knowledge, the DF-21D was never tested against a moving target similar to an aircraft carrier at sea. Yet, when the PLA in 2011 placed the missile in the field in Guangdong Province, it created a new reality to which others had to adjust. Washington had to either deploy countermeasures and persuade allies that they worked, or think about what stakes with China justified endangering an aircraft carrier. The USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier under the 7th Fleet, cost $4.5 billion to build and carries more than 6,000 people. The destruction of one such carrier could kill more American servicemembers than 15 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The environment of risk and uncertainty the PLA helps foster justifies caution.

The PLA’s intelligence organs and Political Work Department also provides a useful network through which to engage the outside world. The Intelligence Bureau within the PLA’s Joint Staff Department controls several think tanks, such as the China Institute for International and Strategic Studies and the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, for research and to interact with foreign analysts. The bureau also has used academic fronts for operational purposes, suggesting a broader network that could be used for covert influence. The Liaison Bureau within the Political Work Department is the primary agent for political warfare, even with the loss of its tactical unit for information operations, the 311 Base, to the recently-formed Strategic Support Force. The Liaison Department operates a network of cultural exchange outfits, like the China Association for International Friendly Contact, shares operational platforms with the intelligence services, and, according to some analysts, even appears to have cooperative relationships with ostensibly private Chinese companies.

These PLA capabilities should not be ignored. But when the challenge is analyzing China’s attempts to interfere in foreign policymaking and politics, they should be understood for what they contribute to the CCP’s broader effort. The “Three Warfares” capabilities outlined above are limited internationally. Yes, their propagandists get quoted, but China Global Television Network has hundreds of journalists overseas broadcasting globally in five languages. The foremost united front organization, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, with its subordinate provincial and local conferences can call upon more than 630,000 members, including military officers. Members range from the likes of billionaires Tung Chee-hwa and Chau Chak Wing to current and former officials former Minister of State Security Geng Huichang or Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai. The scale of the other party-state players is global in a way that the PLA’s resources do not allow.

To understand how the CCP shapes the world around China, analysts must look to the party center rather than the PLA. The party congress work reports, plenary reports, five-year plans, circulars, laws, and leadership speeches all explain more than military writings intended for a PLA audience. The converse is also true. The “Three Warfares” are not just a feature of the PLA doing what the militaries do to prepare the battlefield; they are expressions of the CCP’s intentions and day-to-day operations. As noted in a previous piece, the party “approach[es] influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business.”


Peter Mattis is a Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. He also is the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army.

Image: People’s Daily