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Warfare Is More Than Just Bullets
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Warfare Is More Than Just Bullets

Understanding the “Three Warfares” concept China is already using against Taiwan—and the U.S.

The fate of Taiwan is a hot topic in Washington these days. The clear and present danger from Beijing is growing. Less clear is the extent to which America is willing to rise to Taipei’s defense. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said this week that the U.S. would take “action” if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to use force against the tiny island nation, but no one really knows what that would entail. 

Much of the discussion surrounding America’s commitment to Taiwan, or lack thereof, focuses on the possibility of a full-scale invasion by China’s military. Given the Chinese military’s increasingly aggressive behavior just off Taiwan’s shores, this concern is well-placed. But a large-scale offensive is only one scenario policymakers are currently weighing. 

According to a new report published by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, the CCP’s goal is “seizing Taiwan without a fight.” How? The answer lies in the CCP’s “Three Warfares” doctrine. 

The “Three Warfares” concept is also discussed in the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) annual report on China, which was submitted to Congress earlier this month. The Pentagon explains that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began developing the strategy as early as 2003. The PLA’s intent is “to demoralize adversaries and influence foreign and domestic public opinion during conflicts.” Simply put, the PLA wants to undermine its adversaries willingness to fight even before the battle begins.

The PLA’s “Three Warfares” are: psychological, public opinion, and legal. 

According to DoD, China’s psychological warfare “uses propaganda, deception, threats, and coercion to affect the adversary’s decisionmaking, while also countering adversary psychological operations.” Simultaneously, the PLA employs public opinion warfare in an attempt to “guide and influence” how both “domestic and international audiences” perceive a conflict. Meanwhile, the CCP also uses legal warfare, via both “international and domestic laws,” to “gain international support, manage political repercussions, and sway target audiences.”

According to Taiwan’s military, the CCP is already deploying its “Three Warfares” doctrine against Taipei. The U.S. Defense Department has come to the same conclusion with respect to Washington—Americans are already in the crosshairs of this type of asymmetrical warfighting.  

The Taiwanese military explains that all three of the PLA’s warfares can be understood as “cognitive warfare,” which relies on a variety of tactics. For starters, China’s massive economy gives the PLA “leverage,” which it is using “to solicit support from the business sector and the people in Taiwan.” (The CCP has done the same thing with American businesses, using access to China’s giant market as a lever to stymie criticism.) The PLA’s increasing military incursions off the shores of Taiwan, both in the air and at sea, are intended to intimidate the island’s citizens.

Then there are the CCP’s verbal arrows. Taiwan’s military paper outlines four ways in which the PLA is attempting to shape the narrative. The first is known as “propaganda mode,” which involves official statements and messages produced by the CCP’s “wolf warrior” diplomats. The second is known as “pink mode,” which relies on “internet commentators” and “ghostwriters” to push pro-Beijing messages. This includes both disinformation and blatant cheerleading. The work of these CCP agents is amplified by the “content farm mode,” which relies on bots and other online tools to ensure that such messages are disseminated widely. The fourth and final category is known as “collaboration mode,” which highlights the stories of collaborators inside Taiwan, with the intent of undermining the will of any resistance. 

It is not clear if these tactics are all equally effective, or even what their overall effect really is. Regardless, the CCP’s assault on Taiwan has already begun—once you understand that warfare is more than just bullets. 

The Defense Department’s report to Congress briefly outlines some of the general ways in which the “Three Warfares” doctrine is already shaping the rivalry between the U.S. and China. The CCP is conducting various “influence operations to achieve outcomes favorable to its security and military strategy objectives by targeting cultural institutions, media organizations,” as well as the “business, academic, and policy communities of the United States.” These influence operations are intended to shape public opinion concerning the CCP’s “one China principle” (under which Taiwan is considered an inseparable part of the Chinese nation), the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (a massive international economic undertaking), the status of Hong Kong (another formerly semi-autonomous entity) and Tibet, as well as the CCP’s “territorial and maritime claims” throughout the South China Sea. 

All of this messaging is coordinated through official bodies within the CCP’s autocratic regime, including “the United Front Work Department, the Propaganda Department, and the Ministry of State Security (MSS).”

Will the “Three Warfares” doctrine really enable the CCP to conquer Taiwan “without a fight”? Color me skeptical. When push comes to shove, I think Taiwan won’t roll over so easily. 

But in the meantime, there is plenty the U.S. and its allies can do to highlight the various ways the “Three Warfares” doctrine is being implemented—both inside America and Taiwan. The FBI, Department of Justice, and National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) have all provided the public with examples of how this all works. But they could do more to educate the American people on the CCP’s various machinations both at home—and abroad. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.