The Implications of the Three Warfares for Taiwan: Strategic Thinking and Campaigns (Part 2)

By Elsa B. Kania

Elsa Kania is a recent graduate of Harvard College and currently works as an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group.

Under the aegis of “wartime political work,” the Chinese People’s Liberation Army  (PLA) has developed a systematic framework (see part 1) for the “Three Warfares” that builds upon foundational principles, including notably the concept of “disintegrating enemy forces” (瓦解敵軍). Recent writings by Chinese strategists from influential PLA institutions build upon this traditional framework in attempts to articulate a highly integrated approach to public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare that has increasingly emphasised their employment in conflict scenarios. Indeed, the available PLA writings on the Three Warfares reflect their integration into the PLA’s science of political work and high-level thinking on military strategy. In addition, the PLA’s incorporation of the Three Warfares into its approach to joint campaigns (聯合戰役), including scenarios involving Taiwan, indicates their perceived utility as critical aspects of the PLA’s approach to targeting Taiwan during a potential conflict scenario.

The Three Warfares in Strategy

As the PLA’s strategic thinking on the topic has progressed, the Three Warfares have also been integrated into recent military academic works and textbooks, including those produced by the Academy of Military Science (AMS) and National Defense University (NDU), which highlight the relevance of this approach in modern warfare. Notably, the 2013 AMS textbook, The Science of Military Strategy (SMS), introduced the concept of huayuquan (話語權), perhaps best translated as “discursive power,”[1] which involves the use of information, belief, and mentality (信息一信仰一心智).[2] To achieve and sustain such discursive power requires the integrated usage of public opinion warfare, legal warfare, and psychological warfare, which are seen as critical force multipliers for military operations. In particular, three warfare operations have the potential to exert a strong “psychological frightening force” (心理震懾力) against an adversary.

Similarly, a 2014 NDU text, Introduction to Public Opinion Warfare, Psychological Warfare, and Legal Warfare, illustrates the NDU’s sustained efforts to develop a “Science of the Three Warfares” (“三戰”學), which are considered a major innovation in the PLA’s political work.[3] As the form of warfare has evolved toward greater “informationisation” (信息化), the Three Warfares, which involve the utilisation of particular information and media as weapons, are seen to have achieved unprecedented breakthroughs, becoming an “organic” aspect of strategy and warfare.[4] In particular, this text highlights the importance of rapidly taking advantage of the “decisive opportunity” (先機), emphasising the offensive while concurrently engaging in defence, and the integration of peace and war (平戰結合) through a peacetime preparation of the perceptual battlefield.[5]

The Three Warfares in Campaigns

Beyond these strategic principles, how might the PLA seek to employ aspects of the Three Warfares in an operational scenario, against Taiwan or another potential adversary?

The second edition of the AMS Science of Joint Campaigns Textbook (聯合戰役學教程), published in 2012, indicates that the Three Warfares have been conceptualised as integral aspects of the PLA’s approach to joint campaign scenarios, which include the island blockade campaign (島嶼封鎖戰役) and island assault campaign (島嶼進攻戰役), scenarios that would, in all likelihood, be directed against Taiwan.[6]

In particular, during efforts to “create pre-war momentum” (戰前造勢), public opinion warfare and psychological warfare would be employed as the primary content of efforts to disintegrate enemy forces and “consolidate” (鞏固) oneself.[7] Through these and related efforts—such as reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance, as well as cyber offensives and defensives—the PLA would seek to seize the initiative and create a favourable situation for a joint offensive (進攻) campaign.[8]

In the midst of a joint offensive campaign, in order to “expand” upon combat success (戰果) and further develop the assault, the campaign commander would seek to undermine the adversary’s will to resist and intensify its chaos, including through the implementation of public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.[9] This would involve aiming, through this combination of firepower strikes and psychological attacks (攻心), to “rapidly disintegrate the enemy forces’ psychology and morale.”

Winning Without Fighting?

Although the Three Warfares remain highly derivative of traditional aspects of the PLA’s approach to wartime political work, this conceptual framework has enabled an intensified emphasis on the integrated, coordinated utilisation of public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare methods in wartime scenarios, including potential joint campaigns against Taiwan.

Indeed, while the PLA’s considerable conventional military capabilities have received justified attention, this dimension of the PLA’s approach to military strategy and operational art is an integral aspect of the PLA’s approach to such contingencies. As the deputy director of the CMC Political Work Department, Wu Changde (吳昌德) highlighted in a recent commentary, the PLA seeks to utilise political psychological attacks in order to disintegrate the enemy forces’ will to fight (鬥志), and achieve “winning without fighting” (不戰而勝) or a success through a “small war, large victory” (小戰大勝).[10]

The main point: The PLA’s continued efforts to target Taiwan and other potential adversaries will remain informed by traditional principles of political warfare and an  intensified focus on their application in modern informationised warfare.

For more details, please refer to the original text, Global Taiwan Brief – Volume 1, Issue 10.

[1] John Costello and Peter Mattis, “Electronic Warfare and the Renaissance of Chinese Information Operations,” in Joe McReynolds, ed., China’s Evolving Military Strategy, (Washington, D.C.: Jamestown Foundation, 2016).
[2] Junshi kexueyuan junshi zhanlue yanjiubu 軍事科學院軍事戰略研究部 [Academy of Military Science Military Strategy Research Department],ed., Zhanlue xue 戰略學 [The Science of Military Strategy] (Beijing: Junshi kexue chuban she 軍事科學出版社 [Military Science Press], 2013), 131.
[3] Wu, Jieming 吴杰明 and Liu, Zhifu 刘志富, Yulun zhan xinli zhan falü zhan gailun 輿論戰心理戰法律戰概論 [An Introduction to Public Opinion Warfare, Psychological Warfare, [and] Legal Warfare] (National Defense University Press, 2014), 1.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid,  121-132.
[6] Li Yousheng 李有升, ed., Lianhe zhanyi xue jiaocheng 聯合戰役學教程 [The Science of Joint Campaigns Textbook] (Beijing: Junshi kexue chuban she 軍事科學出版社 [Military Science Press], 2012), 203.
[7] Ibid,  212.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid, 231.
[10] Thank you to Mark Stokes for mentioning this article to me.

Global Taiwan Institute



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