The first casualty when war comes, is truth
Cognitive operations are becoming an increasingly significant and common element of non-kinetic military operations. States and other political players deliberately manipulate the way their actions, those of their allies and those of their adversaries are perceived by the governments and societies of other international players. Russia is, above all, associated with systematic and effective methods of this kind, although China also has a fair amount of experience in this field. Moreover, China’s actions are part of a broader strategy beyond mere information and disinformation operations, including internal propaganda.
Historical origins of the Three Warfares concept
According to the popular belief the Chinese people have a particular predilection for actions that aim to defeat the enemy without a fight. This may attested to by ancient treatises such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the anonymous Thirty-Six Stratagems. Without delving too deeply into history, it should be noted that in comparison to other societies, the Chinese were distinctive not so much for their greater susceptibility and even mastery in deception but in the open discussion of these methods.
The roots of China’s contemporary approach to information warfare, however, must be sought much closer. It is worth recalling that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not just an army of the state but primarily part of structures created by the Communist Party of China (CPC). These are structures that differ not only from the Western world but also from the Soviet models. Mao Zedong expressed himself very clearly on this topic in 1929 at the Gutian Congress. He stated that tasks of the PLA are not purely military. Since then, it has been an armed part of the CPC to carry out the political tasks of the revolution. In other words, the party leads, the PLA follows it, and the goal is to influence political power (Mattis, 2018, Sugiura, 2021: 76-77). This political approach creates a perception of threats and ways of dealing with them.
Historically, an important argument for information, psychological and influence operations has been the weakness of the PLA in comparison to potential opponents. Hence, the need to constantly raise morale within its ranks and lower it in the enemy. Methods called hybrid today were already used extensively by the CPC during the civil war against the Kuomintang, the war against Japan (Second Sino-Japanese War), and the Korean War. The psychological operations conducted during these three conflicts were rated effective in China and became a benchmark for future considerations. Outside of China, opinions are diverse as to their effectiveness. While these operations were undoubtedly successful in the civil war, their effectiveness during the battles against the Japanese and Americans is debatable.
The international discourse adopted the English translation of three warfares (3W). The very term sānzhǒng zhàn fǎ (三種戰法) can be translated as the three wars, three tactics, or three ways of fighting. Nevertheless, before Mao’s ideas were converted into 3W, a significant re-evaluation in Chinese thinking about state security, or more precisely the CPC power, and the conduct of military operations.
Taking lessons from the present. Gulf War and subsequent conflicts
A new approach to military operations began to take shape in the mid-1980s, with Chinese military officials keenly observing US airstrikes in Libya in 1980. During this almost forgotten conflict, the high-tech equipment was first used on a larger scale, including high-tech weapon systems, joint operations and modern command, control and communication systems (C3).
This use of high-tech equipment indicated the further direction in which the PLA should evolve. However, the events in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 proved crucial to the threat perception. The magnitude of the protests shocked the CPC leadership. Somewhat unexpectedly, the military also became a problem. The order to pacify was not popular among soldiers and caused concerns about their loyalty. Party committees were established in all units to address this, even at the company level. The basic party structures go down even further to the squad level (Fravell, 2019: 194-195).
Moreover, the shock received by the communist leadership has gone much further. The diplomatic isolation in which China found itself due to the protestors’ massacre and the later sanctions reinstated the belief from the era of Mao that capitalist countries are hostile to the CPC’s rule. The pro-democracy protests were supposed to be the product of “external forces” seeking to overthrow the regime. This effort had to be led by the country pushing for sanctions on the PRC and the loudest promoter of democracy, the United States. The sense of threat began to grow as the Soviet bloc collapsed and finally the USSR itself.
The future perspective was unclear at the time. Anxiety remained, even though most sanctions were quickly removed, and contemporary analyses assessed the PRC’s international position as the best in history with a minimal risk of foreign invasion (Goldstein, 2003: 67, Cabestan, 2013: 55-58).
As a consequence of these events, the interest in non-kinetic warfare methods began to grow again. Already in 1990, Wen Jinquan, Du Rubo and Juan Min National Defence University published “Introduction to Psychological Warfare.” The function of this book in shaping of later concepts remains unclear, but it testifies to the vibrancy of this theme in Chinese strategic thought (Charon and Jeangène Vilmer, 2021: 45).
The Gulf War was the next alarm bell for China. Great surprise and strong concern caused the speed with which Washington-led coalition forces liberated Kuwait and smashed Iraqi forces with minimal loss. However, what particularly drew the attention of Chinese decision-makers were US diplomatic and media actions, which from the Chinese perspective were interpreted as influence and psychological operations during the conflict. Indeed, the United States quickly led to the widespread condemnation of the aggressor and assembled a broad coalition, which involved countries neighbouring Iraq, sharing with it language, culture and religion, and exposed to its possible retaliation actions. Later, in Operation Desert Storm, propaganda and psychological activities repeatedly influenced Iraqi forces to abandon occupied positions or give up without a fight.
Desert Storm was a significant lesson. The importance of information superiority was revealed not only in the ability to pinpoint targets for smart bombs and missiles. Destroying these targets in front of CNN cameras and consequently imposing its narrative to the rest of the world while conducting effective psychological operations was equally, if not more significant. The later intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 only strengthened the Chinese in these conclusions (Mattis, 2018).
In 1993, the lessons from Operation Desert Storm resulted in the implementation of a new military strategy called “Local Wars Under High-Technology Conditions”. The PLA was prepared for local conflicts characterised by a high saturation of advanced equipment. It was also felt that the line between war and peace was slowly becoming blurred and that victory in conflict, or at least the realisation of crucial goals, depended on multifaceted preparations made during peacetime. Shaping the opinions of other countries’ governments and their populations was seen as a key condition for success. This trend has been called “peacetime-wartime integration” or the “war-peace continuum”.
At the same time, Beijing considered that, due to the low risk of large-scale war or foreign invasion, the greatest threat to the CPC’s power came from the ideological sphere, making kinetic actions useless (Mattis, 2018). Consequently, it began to look for methods of maintaining the favourable international situation and shaping opinions regarding the PRC abroad, especially in the United States.
Military and political theorists were faced with the challenge of creating an effective strategy to safeguard the interests of the state and the party, or rather to state it better, the part-state. Due to its military weakness at the time, Beijing relied on non-kinetic methods.
Information warfare figured prominently in these deliberations. In June 1995, the PLA Daily published a Journal series of articles by Colonels Wang Baocun and Li Fei. They highlighted the growing importance of the information domain in current military operations, both in conventional and in asymmetrical warfare. Wang’s and Li’s concepts later focused on weakening the opponents’ morale, of both the military and the society. To achieve this, they pointed out the widely available means such as radio, television, and leaflets were to influence beneficial outcomes before and during military operation (Livermore, 2018).
Over time, these concepts have become increasingly sophisticated and complex. New methods of warfare were included in the book “Chao Xian Zhan” which was the best-known part of the Chinese discussion in the 1990s. The book was published in 1999 and slated into English under the title “Unrestricted Warfare”. The authors Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui were the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) colonels and the political officers. Their concepts were similar to Russian non-linear warfare emphasising the use of information as a weapon in the battle to gain an advantage in the mental sphere (Noosphere). Psychology becomes the main weapon of war; other societies and countries are simultaneously the most important participants and targets.
Qiao and Wang went even further. If the main task is to defend the CPC’s power, and the battle is fought in the field of ideas, the struggle for physical-geographical space ceases to be relevant. Anything that leads to a combination of economic, psychological, propaganda, guerrilla, terrorist, legal and cyber activities can become a tool of action as the addition to information. Both colonels called for combining disinformation and influence operations with hacking attacks, causing political scandals, stock market crashes or attacks on currencies.
“Peacetime-wartime integration” has been advanced in this concept to the point where the difference between a state of war and peace is practically non-existent. Actions are constantly conducted and are not limited by anything. The arena and at the same time the weapon of war can be a conference of the United Nations, the World Health Organization or the World Trade Organization, economic agreements, the construction of a telecommunications network, a social network, an app, a mobile phone, a sponsored article in a foreign newspaper or an archaeological discovery testifying to the power, antiquity and wealth of China.
On the other hand, Qiao and Wang, in their reasoning, did not dissociate themselves from “war is the continuation of policy with other means.” On the contrary, they had an evolved view of military confrontation between countries. Nevertheless, they considered that a conflict between peer opponents with advanced equipment had become too expensive and, in practice, impossible to win. As a result, they criticised what they saw as an excessive aspiration to modernise the PLA in the direction drawn by the US. The solution to this situation was to set limited but achievable goals, use limited means, exploitation of the opponent’s weaknesses, i.e. asymmetrical actions, and above all, strive for conflict resolution outside the battlefield (Sullivan, 2009: 152-154, Inkster, 2020: 183-184, Lu 2020).
“Unrestricted Warfare” has caused mixed reactions. Its realisation would have meant a revolution and thus a violation of the interests of many groups within the party, military and arms industry. Therefore, it is not surprising that Qiao’s and Wang’s concepts were never formally adopted, and both authors were not promoted and soon ended their military careers. It is also a fact that their theses provoked more reaction abroad than in China, at least in open discourse. These arguments are sufficient for critics of the unrestricted warfare to entirely deny the concept. This is the same mistake as placing it at the centre of Chinese activities.
First of all, Qiao and Wang participated in a very vigorous dispute that shaped contemporary Chinese military thought. Secondly, unrestricted warfare was not a strategy for the armed forces but a proposal addressed to the state, or rather the CPC leadership. There is only one part of an overall political strategy in military operations to keep the party in power. The possibility that the translation of “Unrestricted Warfare” into English was a part of the psychological operation should not be excluded. Lastly, many of the concepts presented by Qiao and Wang can be found in the three warfares.
Xinxihua – Informatisation with Chinese characteristics
However, before we move on to the 3Ws, it is important to look at a factor increasingly shaping our reality which is informatisation. The Internet presented the CPC with new threats to power but also new opportunities to strength it, which were scrupulously exploited. The outcome was a widespread system of surveillance and censorship, exemplified first by the Great Firewall of China, complemented today by the social credit system.
The communist leadership quickly recognised the opportunities and threats of new information technologies. It approached them differently compared to democracies and other authoritarian countries. The Chinese term for informatisation, xinxihua, has a much broader meaning than computers and IT technology introduction. It encompasses the constantly evolving process of collecting, systematising, distributing and using an increasing amount of data by the state apparatus, the military, the economy and society as a whole. It is not surprising that the censorship system has been continuously expanded and improved since the very beginning of the Internet in China. Under xinxihua, information becomes another domain of military operations, linking other domains and boosting the efficiency of existing systems. Informatisation was perfectly in line with the new concepts of warfare being examined in the 1990s. The influence of “peacetime-wartime integration” was also visible. China’s military and civilian R&D programmes in IT and digitalisation were interlinked and complementary from the beginning (Jenner, 2016: 313).
Xinxihua has provided the guiding framework for information and operations influenced by CPC agencies, including in particular: the propaganda and international communications departments of the Central Committee, the United Front, the Communist Youth League, the ministries of foreign affairs and state security, and the military. All these parties’ operations are complementary to each other. One of the main tasks in this broad front is to break US supremacy in global media reach and scope. The goal is to achieve message delivery dominance (xinwen quan) and information dominance (xinxi quan) as key points on the path leading to psychological dominance (xinli quan).
The means of implementation are various. They cover, in particular, the broadcast of the state-owned television channel CCTV, the establishment of the China Global Television Network (CGTN, formerly CCTV-9 and CCTV News) and then the 24-hour English-language station CNC World under the news agency Xinhua. The foreign ministry, in turn, began holding daily press briefings from September 2011 instead of bi-weekly ones (Kerezy, 2020).
In the case of the PLA, the xinxihua concept was introduced with the “Local Wars Under Informatised Conditions” strategy adopted in 2004. It was a clear signal of the increased focus on informatisation and the aim to conduct operations based on a system of systems, i.e. a system that binds the various systems used by the military together. Another facet of the information warfare approach was the appointment of a spokesperson for the defence ministry, the setting up of a ministry website and the training of personnel in the use of mass media (Damiri, 2013). The next step was the strategy of “Local Informatized Wars”, already adopted under Xi Jinping’s leadership in 2014. Xinxihua continues to have an important part to play, but new domains such as cyberspace, space, the electromagnetic spectrum and the cognitive realm have been added to the traditional areas of activity.
San zhong zhanfa
In 2003, the concept of the 3W was formally brought up with the revision of the “Regulations regarding political work in the PLA” conducted by the CPC Central Committee and Central Military Commission’s (CMC). In their view, political work during conflict should include public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare. However, relatively quickly, 3W began to play an increasing role. In 2006, the CMC concluded that the modernisation process was not keeping pace with national security needs, and as a result, the armed forces’ capabilities were considered “incompatible” with winning “Local Wars Under Informatised Conditions”. This reinforced the belief that 3W should be developed as one of the key capabilities of the armed forces (Mattis, 2018, Sugiura, 2021: 16).
This belief has led to a reassessment of the modernisation plans and strategic assumptions. It was originally envisaged that by 2020, the PLA would reach a level of sophistication to measure itself as an equal to the US armed forces. The deadline has now been postponed until 2049, the PRC’s centenary. Deficiencies in conventional military capabilities were again chosen to be covered by expanding non-kinetic capabilities. The further review of the 2010 “Regulations regarding political work in the PLA” elaborated the demands of the 3W. Since then, all military personnel is expected to be trained in the three warfares, military propaganda work must include the war of public opinion, liaison work must include psychological warfare, and political work, judicial work and even judicial activity must include legal warfare (Singh, 2013: 28, Charon and Jeangène Vilmer, 2021: 43).
All elements of the 3W are interrelated, complementary and inseparable. Public opinion warfare creates a conducive environment for psychological and legal warfare. Legal warfare creates the legal ground for psychological and public opinion warfare. Psychological warfare creates the tools to implement public opinion and legal warfare (Damiri, 2013). They aim to weaken the opponent without the need for classical military means and enable a beneficial resolution of the conflict for China. 3W is based on using the opponent’s weaknesses and own advantages, masking one’s own political objectives and ultimately creating favourable conditions to achieve victory through armed conflict (Singh, 2013: 29).
Public opinion warfare (media warfare)
In this field, the goal is to manipulate public opinion. In the case of action on the domestic front, the aim is to boost the morale of own people and troops, while in the international arena, the goal is to weaken the morale and willingness to fight off the opposite side; as well as the broadest possible propagation of the Chinese narrative in order to change the opponent’s assessment of the situation and to build support from international public opinion for Beijing’s actions. In Chinese terminology, media warfare consists of three elements: shaping the “cognitive orientation” of the masses, stimulating their emotions, and then enforcing desired behaviour. The main weapons of the fight are radio, television, books, newspapers, and the Internet, emphasising social media. The latter medium has been used very aggressively and extensively for several years. On a large scale, it is used to promote Beijing’s narrative through official accounts and bots, promoting columnists and influencers who sympathise with the PRC. The broad use of social media does not mean that traditional media have been relegated. As a rule, Chinese diplomatic missions have been buying up advertisements and content in local media.
Considering “peacetime-wartime integration”, public opinion warfare activities have been calculated for many years. They can be actively carried out, only to fade into the background after a while, for their main advantage is their continuity and permanence, and their aim is to shape minds unnoticed (Damiri, 2013, Charon and Jeangène Vilmer, 2021: 46).
Public opinion warfare involves three scenarios: attacking individuals most important in the opponent’s camp, using specific situations and publicising the opponent’s difficult military position. Such operations are to provide an opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom of own actions and to gain moral superiority, to show off own military superiority in order to undermine the opponent’s morale and to contradict his propaganda. The keeping of initiative is important in the public opinion war (Sugiura, 2021: 83-84).
Disinformation operations (DI) play an essential role. While the truth is irrelevant, what matters is creating and disseminating messages beneficial to the CPC. The media, especially social media, are used to keep own people misinformed and suppress any critical voices about Beijing’s actions, both domestic and abroad.
PLA distinguishes four pillars of media operations (Damiri, 2013, Kerezy, 2020):
- top-down guidance – media warfare is in line with the broader strategy outlined by the leadership of the CPC and the PRC. Contractors of the operation must follow the guidance of their highest superiors regarding both the content and timeline of news reporting;
- pre-emption – whoever is first to publish information, especially on social media, gains an advantage, being more likely to predominate the message, frame the debate and influence its further direction;
- flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions – despite its hierarchical structure, PLA requires flexibility to respond and adapt in the changing of political and military conditions;
- “all available” resources – this is another aspect of the “war-peace continuum”. The assigned tasks are carried out using available resources at the disposal of military and civilian entities.
Mattis (2013), basing on the above guidelines and an analysis of US-China tensions, characterised four stages of Beijing’s actions during a crisis:
- providing its version of events – at the beginning of each crisis, Beijing publishes statements outlining the Chinese position on what has happened;
- setting out the principles for incident resolution – Chinese officials indicate the terms of any negotiations from the outset and try to frame the discussion. These are considered acceptable minimums that satisfy Beijing’s obligations to the Chinese public opinion. These actions are designed for both foreign and domestic audiences;
- shut down all unofficial but regularly used communication channels – US and Japanese diplomats and officials stress that their Chinese counterparts avoid contact in a time of crisis. This is part of the PRC leadership’s efforts to establish tight control over the information flow and thus gain supremacy in this domain while confusing the opponent and exerting psychological pressure;
- emphasising China’s commitment to relations with the US – this is the PRC’s version of the ‘blame game’, turning the crisis into a test of US goodwill and intentions towards China. Typically, from the outset, Beijing firmly expresses its full commitment to the bilateral relationship while suggesting that Washington does not take bilateral relations as seriously as China does.
Psychological warfare aims to threaten and demoralise the opponent and, consequently, break his will to fight. The targets of psychological operations (PSYOPS) are not only people and society but also governmental and command structures of the enemy. The purpose of actions at this level is to disrupt their smooth functioning. As in the case of media warfare, mass media, led primarily by the Internet, play a large role in psychological operations. However, the toolbox is much broader and includes military manoeuvres and exercises, equipment and weapons displays, intimidation, provocations and grey zone activities below the threshold of war (Damiri, 2013).
PLA distinguishes four types of psychological warfare (Charon and Jeangène Vilmer, 2021: 47-48):
- coercion – forcing an opponent to behave in a certain way;
- mystification – misleading the opponent to induce change in his situation perception and thus its political and military calculations, and consequently to adopt the attitude desired by Beijing;
- division – sowing discord in the opponent’s camp. The breaking of ties and destruction of trust between the government and the governed, commanders and subordinates. This type of operations exploits any potential rifts among opponents;
- defence – preventing psychological operations conducted by the enemy, sustaining and raising the morale of own forces and the people. Political officers play a key role in these operations (as described further below).
Singh (2013: 30) identified psychological warfare as the most subversive element of 3W, aiming to destroy the opposing party’s confidence and determination to resist. In peacetime, psychological warfare techniques involve influencing and altering an opponent’s unconscious, implicit beliefs to make them more susceptible to coercion. PSYOPS are designed to create doubt, fuel moods of resentment towards leadership, and as a result, disrupt the decision-making ability and weaken the will to act.
Psychological warfare is a central element of 3W. Preparing the ground for it during the peacetime is considered a key element for later success. In the perception of PLA the growing role of ‘smart’ systems in military operations has raised the importance of media and psychological warfare, and therefore the means of conducting PSYOPS should be improved and expanded (Sugiura, 2021: 84).
The concept of legal warfare seems to be most alien to traditional thinking about conflicts. In Western culture, it has become accepted to approach international law to prevent wars or, if they cannot be prevented, regulate how they are conducted and their results as much as possible. This approach has been followed throughout the world. Since the 1990s, there began to be clearer voices in China for treating law as another weapon of warfare. In 3W, it is used to launch attacks, counterattacks, deterrence, coercion and punishment (Charon and Jeangène Vilmer, 2021: 49).
The purpose of legal warfare is to create the appearance of legitimacy for China’s actions, including the use of military force, while at the same time portraying the actions of the opposing party as illegitimate, forcing it into passivity and blocking the intervention of any third country. The primary target of legal warfare is not victory in trials before international tribunals. The cases themselves are intended to delay and obstruct the enemy’s actions and later trials of war criminals and wanted individuals to help shape the post-war reality. In the end, a legal dispute is meant to reinforce military strategy, hassle the opponent, and shape public opinion rather than resolve the conflict.
These types of activities were defined as passive. However, they were quickly completed by active actions. Their purpose is to shape international law and norms in a way that is beneficial to the CPC government, or at least to impose a Chinese interpretation and, on this basis, to force the application of domestic law. In order to achieve these goals, China has become very active on the forum of international organisations like the UN, the World Health Organization and legal organisations. The activity on international forums is supported by creating associations like the International Association of the New Silk Road Lawyers and forming more lawyers who specialise in international law (Damiri, 2013, Charon and Jeangène Vilmer, 2021: 49, Sugiura, 2021: 84).
Another example of active legal warfare is revising the Law of the Sea. Most likely, Beijing’s main goal is to block access to waters adjacent to Chinese coasts and archipelagos to which China lays claim. Specifically, the aim is to block the operational freedom of ships and aircraft of the US, Japan and Southeast Asian states. (Singh, 2013: 36).
The role of political officers
During the conflict, political officers are the main executors of the 3W. The PLA adopted this institution from the Red Army but went far from the Soviet models of the Second World War. First of all, in the Chinese model, the political officer is not placed higher in the hierarchy than the commanding officer. In PLA units both are equal in rank and have clearly defined responsibilities. The political officer is the secretary of the party unit in one’s troop, and the officer in charge is the deputy secretary. A political officer is the secretary of the party unit in his or her troop, and the commanding officer is the deputy secretary. In addition to military ranks, political officers are subject to a three-tier rank system. At the regimental level and above are political commissars, at battalion level political directors and at company level political instructors.
In peacetime, their main task is to solidify the CPC’s control over the military, which is defined by the collective term “political work”. This term includes developing party structures in the army, indoctrinating soldiers, but also taking care of their well-being and adequate service conditions. “Political work” includes training courses and briefings explaining the decisions and policies of the authorities, ideological training promoting values and ideas accepted by the authorities such as patriotism and nationalism, organising sports, cultural and other vocational training events, building good relations with local communities, personnel policy, receiving complaints from soldiers and even providing psychological support.
Activities of political officers strengthen the party’s control over the armed forces and ensure that the political objectives set by the CPC are achieved. At the same time, political officers are supposed to carry out counter-intelligence operations, counter the enemy’s psychological operations and gather information about him. In both war and peacetime, the political officer is a co-commander; his countersignature is required under operational orders. At the same time, consensus decision-making between the commanding officer and the political officer is promoted (Benson and Zi, 2020: 17-18, Sugiura, 2021: 77-78).
As is evident, elements of 3W are in line with the “peacetime-wartime integration”, prepared and conducted all the time. They vary in intensity and in the tasks set for political officers. Commissars handle all aspects of 3W, while political directors and instructors are primarily responsible for defensive operations. In the case of conflict, this duty assignment does not change much, but the ability to conduct operations increases. The Chinese command and control (C2) system include the “Political Work Component of the Integrated War Time Command Platform” software. It contains 13 specialised components: management of political work, organisational work, personnel work, propaganda, public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, legal warfare, security, an inspection of discipline, mass works, the battlefield situation display, graphic processing of documents and a war database of political work.
The software is used, for instance, to conduct training on political work in the field of command and information processing. It also raises the issue of integrating the system with C2 systems used by commanding officers at different levels, reconnaissance systems, offensive and defensive information systems and integrated support systems. This software provides real-time information sharing between political and command officers to ensure that political work keeps pace with combat operations.
All elements of the “Political Work Component” are available elements to political work centres assigned to group army level commands or higher. Lower levels do not have access to 3W functions, keeping with the concept of conducting operations within their framework according to the top-down guidance. Due to the importance of psychological warfare, it has been given specialised structures. The organisation and coordination at the strategic level are provided by the 311 Base, while for individual campaigns by psychological warfare regiments. These units are subordinated to the Strategic Support Force established in 2016, presumably responsible for cyber and space operations. Media and legal warfare operations are conducted during the conflict by existing political organs of the group army level and higher (Sugiura, 2021: 85-86).
3W in practice. The South China Sea case
The dispute over the Spratly and Paracel Islands is one of the best-documented examples of China applying the 3W concept in practice. PLA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other actors carry out comprehensive and interrelated operations. The construction of artificial islands and the activities of maritime militias come to the fore. Operations conducted by paramilitary formations place the navies and coastguards of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and the United States in a difficult situation. How to respond to actions and provocations by vessels posing as ordinary fishermen? China has succeeded here in permanently confusing its opponents, depriving them of the initiative and strengthening its own claims.
The purpose of building artificial islands is similar. On the one hand, by the method of accomplished facts, disputed areas are put under control, while psychological pressure is exerted at the same time. The periodic placement of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile launchers, fighter jets and drones on the islands demonstrates their inability to counter China to other actors in the dispute (Livermore, 2018, Carpio, 2021). A similar role was played by large-scale military exercises and Beijing’s threat to establish an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Without US assistance, the main victims of Chinese pressure, Vietnam and the Philippines, cannot prevent the PRC from enforcing the ADIZ and thereby gaining control of the airspace over the disputed water body.
Another aspect of 3W is the emphasis on the antiquity of Chinese claims and the assertion that the Chinese were the first to discover, name and manage the disputed archipelagos. The supposed consequence was the permanent sovereignty over them by successive dynasties. This allegedly happened as long as two thousand years ago, and the evidence is archaeological findings in the form of fragments of vessels and ancient maps (Carpio, 2021).
The Spratly and Paracel Islands dispute is also part of the legal warfare. China is thus proving that its claims are not baseless. However, the formation of the legal reality is also carried out through other methods. In 2012, on the island of Yongxing in the Paracel Islands, the city of Sansha with prefecture status was established, which created China’s smallest city (400 inhabitants) and the largest prefecture (2 million km², including the Paracel and Spratly Islands). Beijing thus formally extended its sovereignty over the disputed areas (Mattis, 2018).
A significant 3W event in the South China Sea was the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The Philippines brought the case. However, China refused to comply with the arbitration, so the tribunal could only issue a legal opinion. This one, however, exceeded Manila’s best expectations. The tribunal found the PRC’s claims and actions baseless and inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The claim of the tribunal was a significant blow for Beijing, which, however, quickly launched a counterattack. The ruling was declared invalid and non-binding, and the Philippines’ actions were presented as a violation of international law. In the following years, China embarked on a so far an unsuccessful attempt to amend UNCLOS and give it “Chinese characteristics.”
This involves the concept of a “jurisdictional sea.” This term includes the entirety of internal waters, territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and the continental shelf over which China’s jurisdiction extends or to which Beijing has claims (Behrendt, 2016, Behrendt, 2017, Carpio, 2021).
Media warfare was also actively pursued. The most interesting example occurred in New York. Between 23 July and 3 August 2016, a three-minute film presenting the Chinese position on the Court’s ruling was broadcast 120 times a day on a 200 m² screen in Times Square. The material included statements by British Member of Parliament Catherin West manipulated to suggest support for China’s position (Charon and Jeangène Vilmer, 2021: 46-47).
3W. The case of the India-China border
The 3W are also used on a large scale against India. A point of contention between the two countries is the route of the more than 3,200 km long border, much of which is disputed.
The two countries even fought two wars in the 1960s over this issue. These are also the subjects of propaganda efforts. Beijing is fond of recalling its 1962 victory and scantily ignores the 1967 defeat. This approach is an excellent example of psychological warfare, overstating the enemy’s losses, understating own losses and devaluing the worth of the Indian military.
The disputed border issue has been around all the time, but it started to rise again with Xi Jinping’s ascent to power. Since 2013, China has been putting increasing pressure on India. The main hotspots are now in Ladakh and the eastern Himalayas. The first attack was launched from an unexpected direction using legal warfare. In January 2013, the Xinhua news agency reported that a Chinese court could not deliver a verdict linking India with self-immolations committed by more than 80 Tibetan monks protesting the PRC’s rule over Tibet. There was no reason given for the court’s inability to pass judgment. However, it was suggested that if the judge was in power to pass the judgment, China could have press India to track down the alleged instigators of the suicides on its territory (Singh, 2013: 27).
It became a rule for Chinese soldiers and border guards to cross the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and set up posts on the Indian side or take Indian observation equipment, which was later returned. Violations of Indian airspace by helicopters were also in the repertoire of Chinese actions. Demonstrations of force are on the other side of the escalation. India responds the same way but cannot take the initiative and merely reacts to China’s actions (Singh, 2013: 31).
The summer of 2017 was marked by the Doklam plateau crisis, where China attempted to grab some Indian and Bhutanese territory. The situation escalated rapidly. Beijing played out the situation according to the points outlined by Mattis (2013). The PRC announced a resolute defence of its national interests by all available means and blamed India for aggravating the situation. At the same time, Chinese propaganda recalled the 1962 war and warned that New Delhi “should not try its luck and pursue its fantasies” through military confrontation. The crisis was averted, but the issue has not been resolved, and is still continuing.
In 2020, a similar story happened in the Galwan valley in Ladakh. This latest crisis was a significant test for the 3W due to casualties on both sides. China was very keen to highlight the over 20 dead on the Indian side, which India was the first to admit. Pictures of alleged Indian captives were also widely shared in the Chinese media. It took several months for the propaganda to confirm the Chinese casualties, and even then, it only admitted to four deaths. At that time, pictures of alleged new Chinese military cemeteries in Tibet, where dozens of people are buried, were very widely spread on the Internet.
Why was this happening? In the face of a triumphalist narrative, admitting its losses was a significant concern. This issue may have been compounded by the implied high sensitivity of the Chinese society to life loss. In the one-child society, the death of an only child is a disaster for the family, especially when they die in a fight of sticks and stones in a region completely unknown to the average citizen of Central China.
While the South China Sea is an example of the successful application of the 3W, the conflict with India shows the limitations of this concept. Neither crisis succeeded in forcing New Delhi to make concessions. However, it must be remembered that action is continuous within the “war-peace continuum”, and the conflict has not been resolved. For almost two years, the sides have already held 14 rounds of negotiations between militaries to agree on the principles of military demarcation between the two countries. A final resolution is not on the horizon, and the concept of conducting the conflict within the 3W paradigm may explain why this situation is beneficial to Beijing.
3W and the case of Taiwan
Taiwan, the Republic of China, invariably regarded by Beijing as a rebel province for more than seven decades, is also a target of 3W operations. This subject is so vast that only a few threads will be highlighted below.
The legal war aims to deprive the Republic of China of diplomatic recognition, block any of its activities in international organisations, and gain legal sanction for the PRC’s position. The media and psychological warfare are meant to convince international opinion of the legitimacy of Chinese demands, to dissuade the islanders from declaring independence – as Taiwan independent from mainland China – and convince the United States about the futility of intervening in case of an invasion. The weapons of war in this field are, for example, the constant violations of Taiwan’s ADIZ by the Chinese air force, military exercises whose scenarios include landings on the islands, diplomatic pressure on countries that recognise the Republic of China or even open representative offices for Taipei under the name Taiwan. The most recent example of this is the ongoing diplomatic and economic conflict with Lithuania.
Mattis (2018) also points out that the PLA has deployed controversial weapons systems near disputed areas like anti-ship ballistic missiles. Their real combat value is unknown, there is no access to reliable tests results, and they have probably never been tested against a moving maritime target. Nevertheless, promoting the image of ‘aircraft carrier killers’ creates a new reality and influences the opponent’s calculations, in that case, the Americans. According to the promoted narrative, anti-ship ballistic missiles are intended to prevent US Navy aircraft carriers from approaching Taiwan, thus thwart any attempt to come to the defenders’ aid, making any kind of resistance pointless.
Taiwan is an important issue for Beijing not only as “unfinished business from the civil war” of the 1940s. The island is a threat to the CPC’s power in the ideological sphere. The success of Taiwan’s democracy contradicts the thesis promoted by the PRC authorities that societies based on Confucianism are incompatible with liberal democracy.
The pandemic and 3W
Although few people are aware of it, the world has become acquainted with the 3W used on a full scale due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All available means of public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare were first used to remove all responsibility for the outbreak of the pandemic from China and to cover up the failure of the local and central authorities in the first weeks after the outbreak.
Then began the propaganda show of blaming others, above all the United States, and promoting the Chinese way of fighting COVID-19 as a model solution while concealing the true scale of disease and death. For this purpose, Beijing initiated “wolf warrior diplomacy” and a large-scale, aggressive propaganda campaign. When Australia demanded an independent investigation into the pandemic outbreak, the PRC responded with a trade war. Within international organisations, the aim of the legal warfare became to block any attempt to investigate the origin and causes of the disease and to hold China accountable.
The outbreak of the pandemic and the initial helplessness of the West allowed the CPC to take steps to transform the international system into an order more favourable to their interests. An important tool of the public opinion warfare on this front was the supply of masks, medical equipment and respirators. They were supposed to build a positive image of the PRC and spread the image of the US and the other powers of the liberal order as incompetent, uninterested in the fate of the global south and generally declining. Relatively quickly, these actions were no longer publicised internationally. However, it does not mean that they were stopped.
Chinese medical equipment often turned out to be of poor quality, and also, the intensively promoted vaccines are probably less effective than their Western and Indian equivalents. Finally, contrary to declarations, Chinese aid was neither free nor selfless. Supplies were often paid for, or if not, subject to additional demand, including diplomatic concessions to China (Behrendt, 2020).
The Chinese response to the Democracy Summit organised by President Biden in December 2021 fits into the same pattern of leading the 3W as the actions revolving around COVID-19. Beijing sought to devalue the virtual summit of democratic leaders organised by Washington. Remarkably, Chinese propaganda did not, in any significant way, take up the most controversial feature of the Summit, which was the selection of participants.
Instead, China published its White Paper proving that it is a better and more efficient democracy than the United States. One cannot fail to get the impression that this step was aimed primarily at the domestic audience or possibly developing countries. However, this may be an attempt to open a new front in the public opinion warfare and change the image of the PRC, which is increasingly seen as at least an authoritarian state.
The CPC also uses the 3W against its population. The goal is to consolidate the party’s power and crush even the smallest outbreaks of potential opposition. The aforesaid use of 3W methods to shape the global narrative on COVID-19 can also be observed in propaganda for domestic use. In addition to spreading disinformation, the authorities’ actions targeted independent journalists and whistleblowers who documented the course of events and publicised the government’s mistakes and wrongdoings.
An example that could qualify as psychological warfare against an individual is the fate of Dr Li Wenliang, who was the first to publicise the outbreak of a new virus. On Western New Year’s Day 2020. Li was called to the headquarters of the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan and accused of “spreading rumours”. Two days later, he was forced to sign a statement in which he admitted the offence and promised to desist from further “unlawful acts”. Police detained seven other people on the exact charges. Dr Li died on 7 February 2020 of COVID-19.
The main tasks on the domestic front are to cover up own mistakes while at the same time highlighting the successes in overcoming the pandemic in such a way as to portray the CPC under the leadership of Xi Jinping as the nation’s saviour. The propaganda draws a sharp contrast with the pandemic situation in the West and India. In this way, the party’s legitimacy to rule is strengthened (Behrendt, 2020).
Elements of the 3W, primarily public opinion warfare, were applied to the Hong Kong protests in 2019. The Chinese media and government agencies sowed disinformation on a large scale by portraying the protesters as louts, traitors of the fatherland and a threat to the country’s security while trying to discredit democratic institutions and processes. The events in Hong Kong were portrayed as leading only to violence and chaos and being inspired from the outside. The tight control and manipulation of news from the former British colony made it possible to successfully turn Chinese society against the protesters. Information was presented in such a way that the average Chinese had no chance of understanding the motives of the Hong Kong people (Kerezy, 2020).
Charon and Jeangène Vilmer (2021: 48) point to the use of psychological warfare in the PRC’s bearing the hallmarks of genocide repression against the Uyghurs. Random arrests, frequent inspections, mass internment and forced labour in so-called re-education camps, forced Sinification, destruction of places of worship and monuments important to the Uyghur culture, forced sterilisation of women. Prisoners are also reportedly victims of organ harvesting, which is then offered as “halal” in the Gulf countries. All these actions are intended to show the Uighurs the hopelessness of their situation and to force them to adopt the behaviour that Beijing wants: total submission to the authority of the CPC. The same pattern is followed by Beijing’s actions against the Tibetans, the Mongols and many other minorities.
Strategy in space
3W techniques are also being used to their full extent in the least expected place – space. The media warfare in this area seeks to portray China as the rising space power that it is indeed becoming while emphasising action for the good and progress of all humanity and the peaceful use of space. Projects such as the Russian-Chinese International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), the Chinese Space Station (CSS/ Tiangong) and Mars missions are important means here. Actions for the sake of the PRC’s interests are relegated to the background in this narrative, and when they are mentioned, they are most often presented as a “legitimate response” to US actions.
Psychological warfare goes in the opposite direction. The rapid growth of Chinese activity in space serves to position the CPC state as the inevitable leader and to undermine the position and confidence of the present leader, the United States. Similarly, cooperation with Russia creates psychological pressure that the two countries can join forces and challenge US dominance in outer space, including military means.
The legal warfare is moving in the same direction. China, with Russian help, is seeking to stop US efforts to maintain its dominance in this domain and establish new regulations that better suit its interests. The US itself is providing its opponents with arguments here. One example is the Artemis Accords, which aimed at resuming lunar missions and regulating the use of space. They are usually viewed as tailored exclusively to American interests. By March, 18 parties had joined the agreement. China highlights the nonparticipation of African states and the low representation of the Middle East and Asia. However, despite all the criticism, Beijing has failed to present any concrete counter-proposal (Kuo, 2021).
Despite appearances, the 3W is not hybrid warfare with “Chinese characteristics” but its component. Instead, they can be presented as the essence of modern Chinese political warfare, combining influence, intelligence, cyber operations, and economic pressure. In this broad context, one can point to phenomena as diverse as the trade conflict with Australia, the attacks on Lithuania and the pressure on the EU to force Vilnius into submission to Beijing, the promotion of the narrative of the inevitable decline of the US and its equally inevitable replacement by China, and even the promotion of the impossibly far-fetched thesis of five thousand years of the Chinese civilisation. All these measures are used to undermine the opponent’s confidence, impress a sense of inferiority and non-alternativeness, intimidate him, and thus achieve the CPC’s objectives without recourse to military force.
However, it is important to note that the 3W is equally calculated for internal use. Charon and Jeangène Vilmer (2021: 44) compare them to A2/AD (anti-access/ area denial) strategies in the cognitive sphere. Therefore, the three warfares should be seen as a way of gaining discursive power, that is, the ability to influence the audience’s perception, control the narrative, and impose one’s version of events. Hence, the confrontational approach in the cognitive sphere. Just as anti-access systems are meant to discourage or hinder an adversary in the physical world, the 3W’s task is to block or limit activities targeting China in the realm of ideas.
Nor is it a military strategy sensu stricto, but an extension of the CPC’s political strategy, whose main objective is to stay in power (Mattis, 2018). Despite the bombastic propaganda of success, the Chinese leadership has, at least since the events in Tiananmen Square, perceived itself to be under siege from all sides. The PRC and the PLA are judged as not yet ready for an open confrontation with the US and its allies. This is why open conflicts are avoided, and minimal offensive measures are used.
In this context, calls to explain the origins of the pandemic and the opening of a Taiwan representative office in Vilnius are seen as a challenge to the party’s legitimacy and thus a threat to its key interests. Hence, the actions are more aggressive than usual.
As the rhetoric escalates, the risk of unintended consequences and uncontrolled escalation increases. The greatest risk here is not in the South China Sea or the Sino-Indian border but in countermeasures taken by Washington and the allies. The CPC leadership may perceive this as a threat to its control over the country (Carpio, 2021). This capacious category could include raising the issues of human rights, freedom of speech, possible sanctions hitting hard the key sectors of the economy, undermining the authority of the leadership, or rhetorically separating Chinese society from the CPC, as was done by Secretary of State Pompeo.
This raises the following question: how can the 3W be countered effectively and efficiently, especially in democratic societies, which are not subject to an elaborate control system? Singh (2013: 40) identified four main methods: developing institutional framework and responses; creating awareness of 3W techniques and developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for effects mitigation; focusing on flexible and sustainable responses; and pre-empting attacks, taking shifts in the political and military situation into consideration.
It is essential to move beyond the division between wartime and peacetime operations. Supremacy in the information sphere depends on modern information technologies. The collection and transmission of information is an integral part, but also the ability of degrading its quality, whether by slowing down transmission or inserting false or inaccurate data.
It is also important to bear in mind that China’s media and psychological warfare targets not only officials and government functionaries at all levels (from government members to ordinary officials, from generals to privates) but also society as a whole. Attacks target not only the physical information infrastructure and the data that passes through it (the scope of activities includes cyberattacks and the spread of fake news) but also the people who interact with this data, especially decision-makers. Therefore, it is crucial to sensitise telecom and social networking (Singh, 2013: 40) and build a relatively secure telecom infrastructure.
A distinct issue is to be prepared for more frequent confrontations with China in international law and regulations. Legal warfare is just beginning to extend. There are opportunities to prepare better for this form of confrontation, for instance, by placing a greater emphasis on using the knowledge and skills of its experts in international law, as well as by mitigating the influence the PRC has in international organisations ranging from the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization to the International Telecommunication Union.
To successfully oppose the 3W requires the abandonment of many current habits and the adoption of new ways of thinking about many issues rarely seen before as foreign policy tools.
Translation: Karolina Pendrakowska
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Paweł Behrendt Analyst on Security and East Asia (China and Japan). PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna. Major areas of interest include: foreign and defence policy of Japan and China, international relations and security in East Asia, conflicts in Asia. Author of books "Chińczycy grają w go" and "Korzenie niemieckich sukcesów w Azji”, as well as several dozens of articles on history and security issues in Asia published in Poland and abroad.
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