CHINA’S “Three Warfares”: Influence Operations and the People’s Liberation Army

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The People’s Republic of China is engaged in a long-term, wide-ranging strategic competition with the United States and its allies. The 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States characterized China as a “revisionist power” that seeks to “shape a world consistent with [its] authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” While China’s near-term goal is to achieve regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region, its long-term goal is “displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.” China, the Strategy noted, pursues a comprehensive all – of – nation strategy to assert power through a combination of military modernization initiatives, predatory and coercive economic measures, and influence operations.

Influence connotes an attempt to change the beliefs or behaviors of others through persuasion. Influence operations include a broad range of communications-related and informational activities that aim to affect cognitive, psychological, motivational, ideational, ideological, and moral characteristics of a target audience. Influence operations have a long history in Chinese strategic thought; China has “a lengthy heritage of conceiving and implementing systematic programs” – to include the manipulation of information – “for subverting other states.” This deep historical experience continues to serve China’s leaders. From the very beginning of the Chinese Revolution, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sought to exploit foreign contacts and audiences to shape the story of the revolution, gain support, and discredit their adversaries.


The contemporary version of Chinese influence operations emerged in 2003 when the CCP Central Committee and the Central Military Commission approved the concept of the “Three Warfares” in the revised “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Political Work Regulations.” The purpose of the “Three Warfares” is to establish “discursive power” over an adversary – the power to control perceptions and shape narratives that serve Chinese interests, while undermining those of an opponent – and consists of a combination of media warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.


Media warfare (also known as public opinion warfare) is aimed at influencing public opinions and attitudes to build support for Chinese political and military actions and dissuade an adversary from pursuing actions contrary to China’s interests. Media warfare leverages all information-related capabilities that inform or influence public opinion, to include films, television programs, books, the internet, and the global media network. The goals of media warfare are to preserve friendly morale, generate public support at home and abroad, and to weaken an enemy’s will to fight. Media warfare is essentially the control and exploitation of communications channels for the dissemination of propaganda, and is the cornerstone of the “Three Warfares” in that it sets the conditions for dominating communications channels for the conduct of psychological and legal warfare.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army identifies the aim of psychological warfare as “to influence, constrain, and/or alter an opponent’ s thoughts, emotions, and habits while at the same time strengthening friendly psychology.” Psychological warfare is aimed at disrupting an adversary’s decision-making apparatus and undermining an enemy’s ability to conduct military operations by shocking and demoralizing enemy military personnel and their supporting civilian populations. Psychological warfare operations seek to create doubts, foment anti-leadership sentiments, and to alter or shape adversary government or popular perceptions through deception.

Legal warfare (or “lawfare”) uses domestic and international law to claim the “legal high ground” to assert Chinese interests. Lawfare is designed to justify China’s actions as legally valid and cement psychological efforts to create doubts among adversary, neutral military and civilian authorities, and in the broader international community about the justification of an opponent’s actions. Instruments of lawfare include domestic legislation, international legislation, judicial law, legal pronouncement, law enforcement and legal education – all of which can be used separately or in combination to inform and shape lawfare operations such as legal deterrence and the imposition or rejection of sanctions.


While China conducts influence operations through a range of actors, to include the United Work Front Department, the Propaganda Ministry, and the Ministry of State Security, the “Three Warfares” concept is associated most closely with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)¹. Initially referred to as the “Red Army” under Mao Zedong the PLA is first and foremost, the military arm of the CCP. Unlike a national army dedicated to the defense of a state and its people, the PLA’s purpose is to create political power for the Party. As Mao stated, and as contemporary Chinese political leaders continue to believe, “The Red Army fights not merely for the sake of fighting, but in order to…help [the masses, i.e., the Party] establish revolutionary political power.”


The PLA is the ultimate guarantor of the Party’s power and its principal means of achieving its international security objectives and is tasked with shaping the international and regional security environments in ways conducive to the realization of the Party’s goals. Consistent with its role as the “Party’s army,” the PLA conducts information and influence operation through elements of the Central Military Commission (particularly the Joint Staff Branch and its Intelligence Bureau, the Political Work Division Liaison Branch, and the Office for International Military Cooperation), PLA-controlled media enterprises, and the Strategic Support Force. (The SSF’s 311 Base is the only PLA organization publicly known to focus on psychological warfare.)


Reflecting both a long tradition in Chinese strategic thought and its own historical development and role as the armed wing of the CCP, the PLA conducts influence operations to maintain and expand the Party’s “revolutionary political power.” The “Three Warfares” concept provides the CCP and the PLA with a flexible, and potentially powerful and effective means of leveraging aspects of Chinese informational power to gain and maintain influence over both external and internal target audiences before, during, and after an armed conflict.

¹The PLA includes all of China’s armed forces and consists of the PLA Army (PLAA), the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC), the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF), and the PLA Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF).


The author is a retired U.S. Army officer and a retired civilian employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. He holds an MS in Strategic Intelligence from the Joint Military Intelligence College (now National Intelligence University), and an MA in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. His published work has appeared in The Journal of Strategic Studies, Israel Affairs, Parameters, and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

[Editor’s Note: This is a condensed version of an article originally published in the International Bulletin of Political Psychology. Footnotes have been removed for ease of reading. The full article is available through Creative Commons at]


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