China’s “Three Warfares” In Theory and Practice in the South China Sea

PRC Maritime Militia leave a harbor in China’s Zhejiang Province, September 2012.

 By: Doug Livermore, Columnist

Photo by: Reuters News

Chinese military theory has long valued stratagems focused on undermining the morale of an opposing force. In his penultimate work, The Art of War, famed Zhou dynasty strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” [i] In continuing this tradition, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Central Military Commission (CMC) officially introduced san zhong zhanfa, often translated as “the Three Warfares”, in its Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army published in 2003. [ii] Much like with Sun Tzu over 2,500 years ago, the Three Warfares of today seek to break adversary resistance and achieve Chinese national objectives with little or no actual fighting.

The Three Warfares conceptual framework organizes different information-related non-kinetic operations for influencing adversary behavior into three categories:

  1. Strategic Psychological Operations: The pre-conflict posturing of military/paramilitary forces or application of other national capabilities (diplomatic, economic, cultural) with the intention of intimidating adversaries and encouraging acquiescence to PRC-desired outcomes. [iii]
  2. Overt and Covert Media Manipulations: The use of materials delivered to public audiences through established news services, informal internet sites, and other social media to influence domestic and international perspectives associated with ongoing disputes involving the PRC’s interests. [iv]
  3. Exploitation of National and International Legal Systems: The leveraging of existing legal regimes and processes to constrain adversary behavior, contest disadvantageous circumstances, confuse legal precedent, and maximize advantage in situations related to the PRC’s core interests. [v]

The concept of “information warfare” was a topic of widespread discussion within the ranks of the PLA as early as the mid-1990s. In June of 1995, the Liberation Army Daily published a series of articles by Senior Colonel Wang Baocun and Li Fei highlighting the importance of information dominance, both in terms of traditional battlefield “command and control” systems and asymmetric psychological operations designed to undermine the morale of enemy forces and targeted populations. [vi] While the earlier “information warfare” concept was not nearly as developed as the more contemporary Three Warfares, these early information warfare progenitors describe “the use of TV, radio, and leaflets” prior to and during active military operations to help influence the outcome of any engagement in the PRC’s favor.

While many “China watchers” have expressed growing concern with the PRC’s non-kinetic activities in the imprecise space between conventional warfare and peace (colloquially referred to as “the Gray Zone”), it is important to understand these concepts within a broader strategic context. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which controls the PRC as well as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), primarily wields the PLA to ensure the continuation of Party’s control and minimization of external interference in the foreign and domestic affairs. [vii] The PLA plays a part in a sophisticated national strategy that incorporates all levers of China’s comprehensive national power that countries like the U.S. cannot begin to replicate without falling foul of national and international norms and standards. Current PRC military strategy emphasizes the importance of “information dominance”, and san zhong zhanfa is firmly nested within this larger strategic concept. [viii] As non-kinetic tools, the Three Warfares provide useful options for the PRC to leverage in securing its national interests while also preventing escalation into more destructive conventional conflicts.

The PRC has characterized its stake in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute as core national interests related to both its territorial integrity and national security. This is related to its long-maintained claim to the “Nine Dash Line”, which contains most of the South China Sea (SCS). [ix] This claim originated in 1947 when the Republic of China (ROC – now modern-day Taiwan) still controlled mainland China, and both the ROC and the PRC continue to claim this important maritime region. [x] Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia also dispute significant portions of the claim. The disputed regions are some of the busiest maritime commerce routes, in addition having likely sizable deposits of hydrocarbons. [xi] Since December of 2013, the PRC has undertaken an aggressive land reclamation effort to build and fortify many islands across the SCS. This process has continued unabated despite a 2016 ruling against the PRC’s activity by a tribunal established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). [xii] The PRC has pursued a textbook application of the Three Warfares doctrine to advance its interests without triggering a conventional conflict.

The brazen construction of the fortified islands and the staging of advanced military equipment (integrated air defense systems, coastal defense cruise missiles, airborne surveillance drones, and modern jet fighters) demonstrates the PRC’s effort to undermine the psychological ability of the other claimants to oppose its fait accompli. [xiii] Additionally, the PRC deploys maritime militia throughout the region to reinforce its claim, sowing confusion as the opposing naval forces are uncertain of how exactly to respond. [xiv] To reinforce the psychological impact of the PRC’s aggressive posture in the SCS, China has also pursued robust media messaging through news outlets and other mediums to promote narratives reinforcing the historicity of its claim and warning others to refrain from antagonism. [xv] The UNCLOS arbitration did not fall in the PRC’s favor, though the very process itself provided ample opportunity for China to continue pursuing its island-building campaign. Throughout this crisis, the PRC has successfully prevented other regional and international powers from effectively responding to its non-kinetic provocations of military posturing, propaganda overmatch, and legal obfuscation. Continued application of the Three Warfares in the SCS buys the PRC additional time to strengthen its position in the region, which alone will serve as an ever-greater deterrent to other claimants who will see their comparative ability to resist China’s claim dwindle.

The PRC, and particularly the CCP, sees itself today as beset on all sides (and internally) by potential threats, and it seeks to avoid open conflict whenever possible by employing minimally offensive measures to pursue its objectives. [xvi] The Three Warfares of psychological operations, media manipulation, and leveraging of legal processes provide appropriate measures with which the PRC can protect its core interests while exercising what it perceives to be effective escalation control. With that strategic context in mind, it is important that the U.S. appropriately measures and clearly articulates intentions for responses designed to counter the PRC’s disruptive activities. The U.S. may see freedom of navigation operations, in which US Navy vessels sail close to PRC-claimed SCS islands, as simply an exercise in demonstrating opposition to the PRC’s illegal activities. However, the CCP views any such operations as a direct US attempt to undermine to the legitimacy of the Party. [xvii] As rhetoric continues to increase in rancor, unintended consequences and uncontrolled escalation may occur, especially if the CCP perceives that US countermeasures threaten its continued domestic control.




[[i]] Sun Tzu (translated by Lionel Giles), Art of War: The Oldest Military Treatise in the World, (London: British Museum, 1910), 41.

[[ii]] Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao, “The People’s Liberation Army General Political Department: Political Warfare with Chinese Characteristics,” Project 2049 Institute, October 14, 2013, 15,

[[iii]] T. Thomas, “New Developments in Chinese Strategic Psychological Warfare,” Special Warfare, April 2003, 4,

[[iv]] Michael Raska, “Hybrid Warfare with Chinese Characteristics,” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, December 2, 2015,

[[v]] Orde Kittrie, Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War, (London: Oxford University Press, 2016), 162.

[[vi]] Wang Baocun and Li Fei, “Information Warfare,” Liberation Army Daily by Federation of American Scientists, June 1995,

[[vii]] Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 27-31.

[[viii]] “China’s Military Strategy,” China Military Online, May 26, 2015,

[[ix]] “Xi Jinping uses tougher tone on South China Sea disputes at Asean meeting,” South China Morning Post, September 22, 2012,

[[x]] Shang-su Wu, “South China Sea Ruling: A Boost for Cross-Strait Relations?,” The Diplomat, July 16, 2016,

[[xi]] “China’s Maritime Disputes,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed February 23, 2018,

[[xii]] “South China Sea: Tribunal backs case against China,” British Broadcasting Corporation, July 12, 2016,

[[xiii]] “China Has Nearly Conquered the South China Sea,” The National Interest, February 6, 2018,

[[xiv]] Andrew Erickson and Conor Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,” CNA

[[xv]] Panos Mourdoukoutas, “South China Sea: Red Lines And Propaganda Wars Flare Up Tensions,” Forbes, February 6, 2017,

[[xvi]] Zhao Kejin, “China’s National Security Commission,” Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, July 14, 2015,

[[xvii]] Nicholas Wu, “Fighting History: Domestic Politics in the South China Sea,” Huffington Post, May 6, 2016,


About the Author: Doug Livermore works in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence) as an operational advisor as well as serving as a Special Forces officer with Special Operations Detachment-NATO in the Maryland Army National Guard. In addition to multiple combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Doug led special operations elements during sensitive contingency operations across Africa. He is a West Point graduate currently pursuing his master’s degree full time through Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed in this article do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense or any other part of the US Government.

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