Author: Elsa Kania
China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 13
Beijing’s response to the unfavorable South China Sea arbitration outcome has highlighted an important aspect of its military strategy, the “three warfares” (三战). Consisting of public opinion warfare (舆论战), psychological warfare (心理战), and legal warfare (法律战), the three warfares have been critical components of China’s strategic approach in the South China Sea and beyond. In peacetime and wartime alike, the application of the three warfares is intended to control the prevailing discourse and influence perceptions in a way that advances China’s interests, while compromising the capability of opponents to respond.
Beijing has sought to delegitimize the arbitration process and achieved some success in undermining the coalescence of consensus in support of the ruling, while engaging in coercive signaling and deniable attempts to punish the Philippines. China’s response has also included “regularized” “combat readiness patrols” over the South China Sea by H-6K bombers, as well as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against Philippine government websites (China Military Online, August 6; China Military Online, July 19; InterAksyon, July 15). Consistently, Beijing has attempted to advance narratives that frame itself as the upholder of international law, while claiming that the U.S. is to blame for the “militarization” of the South China Sea (China Military Online, June 23). For instance, official media has frequently characterized the arbitration process as a “farce,” and China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, has argued that the arbitration case would “undermine the authority and effectiveness of international law,” justifying China’s rejection of it as a defense of “international justice and the true spirit of international law” (Xinhua, July 12; PRC Embassy to the U.S., July 13).
These aspects of Beijing’s response should be contextualized by China’s theoretical framework for the “three warfares.” Beyond the South China Sea, this approach has been manifest in a variety of recent cases, including also the East China Sea dispute, China’s opposition to THAAD, and intensifying pressures on Taiwan. The PLA’s evolving strategic thinking on the three warfares, which is linked to its emphasis on information warfare, could influence its efforts to utilize such techniques in future contingencies.
Progression of the PLA’s Approach to Three Warfares:
Although the three warfares constitute a relatively recent addition to Chinese strategy, the PLA’s approach to public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare has been formalized and already advanced considerably. Based on the 2003 and 2010 Political Work Regulations (政治工作条例), the three warfares, under the aegis of “wartime political work” (战时政治工作), were the responsibility of the General Political Department of the former General Staff Department, which, through the recent organizational reforms, has become the Political Work Department (政治工作部), subordinate to the Central Military Commission (CMC) (CPC.com.cn, December 5, 2003; China Brief, February 4). In 2005, the CMC ratified—and the former General Staff Department, General Political Department, General Logistics Department, and General Armaments Department jointly promulgated—official guidelines (gangyao, 纲要, literally “outline” or “essentials”) for public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare, officially incorporating the concepts into the PLA’s education, training, and preparation for military struggle.  While these gangyao themselves are not publically available, the open-source PLA literature on the three warfares, which dates back to the mid-2000s, constitutes a valuable resource for analysis and comparison. 
Several recent texts present authoritative perspectives on the three warfares and illustrate the extent of their integration into the PLA’s strategic thinking and officers’ curricula. These include the latest editions of influential PLA texts on military strategy, the 2013 Academy of Military Science (AMS) edition ofScience of Military Strategy (SMS, 战略学) and the 2015 National Defense University (NDU) SMS, as well as teaching material used by the NDU, An Introduction to Public Opinion Warfare, Psychological Warfare, and Legal Warfare (舆论战心理战法律战概论).  Based on these texts, China’s use of the three warfares constitutes a perceptual preparation of the battlefield that is seen as critical to advancing its interests during both peace and war.
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