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September 12, 2017

Three Warfares: A Prong of China’s Military Strategy

Amid the face off between India and China over the Dolam plateau — an area which belongs to Bhutan but is claimed by China — an understanding of Chinese military strategy throws up light on the current aggressive and threatening posture taken up by the Chinese media over an issue which normally would not invite such rhetoric. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China has closely observed how the United States has conducted its wars over the past two decades, both in Afghanistan and in the Gulf, and its military doctrine has been greatly influenced by the  impact of technology and communications on the battle field. This has influenced to a large extent, the approaches to what China first termed ‘Local Wars Under Modern, High-Tech Conditions’, and are now calling ‘Local Wars Under Informationalized Conditions’. PLA theorists and planners believe future campaigns will be conducted simultaneously on land, at sea, in the air, in space, and within the electronic sphere. Preparation for conflict is based on the following premises:

  • Future wars will be shorter, perhaps lasting only one campaign;
  • Will almost certainly not entail the occupation of China, although Chinese political, economic, and military centers are likely to be attacked;
  • Will involve joint military operations across land, sea, air, cyberspace and outer space, and the application of advanced technology, especially information technology.

Consequently, the modernization of the Chinese military is focused on preparing the PLA to fight and win short-duration, high-intensity conflicts along China’s periphery. This includes scenarios for Taiwan, building counters to third-party, including potential US intervention in cross-Strait crises and Chinese claims along its borders with India. With an increase in its  military capability, China has begun flexing its muscles throughout Asia, sometimes acting unreasonably. With India, its relationship could be described as stable at the strategic level but aggressive at the tactical level and the stand off at the Dolam plateau is proof of such behaviour.

PLA’s Military Modernisation

PLA has been focussed on augmenting and expanding its force of ballistic missiles (long-range and short-range), cruise missiles, submarines, advanced aircraft, and other modern systems. The PLA is working toward these goals by acquiring new foreign and domestic weapon systems and military technologies, promulgating new doctrine for modern warfare, reforming military institutions, personnel development, enhancing professionalism and improving exercise and training standards. As of now however, China’s ability to project conventional military power beyond its periphery remains limited. It thus advocates a policy of “Active defense” which posits a defensive military strategy and asserts that China does not initiate wars or fight wars of aggression, but engages in war only to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity and attacks only after being attacked. Beijing’s definition of an attack against its territory, or what constitutes an initial attack, is left vague, however. In the Indian context, an unresolved border dispute could well result in China using force to reclaim territory which China claims and justify the action as self defence. Once hostilities have begun, evidence suggests the characteristics of “active defense” are distinctly offensive. Advances in military technology provide Beijing with an expanded set of limited force options. Chinese operational-level military doctrine defines these options as “nonwar” uses of force — an extension of political coercion and not an act of war. With growth in China’s military power, we can expect Chinese leaders to resort to force or coercion more quickly to press diplomatic advantage, advance security interests, or resolve disputes.

While the military focus of China is primarily aimed at countering the United States, the capabilities and competencies so developed can in any event be used to resolve issues with India or any other of China’s neighbours from a position of strength. As part of its war fighting strategy, the Chinese lay great stress on psychological operations in what they refer to as the ‘Three Warfares’. This implies dictating the strategic terms of the conflict, by influencing domestic opinion, opposition will, and third-party support. This is what was played out on the Dolam plateau.

To set the strategic stage of the conflict, the “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Political Work Regulations” which were promulgated in 2003, sets forth among the tasks of political work, the task of the “three warfares” — psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare. In the Indian context, this could be aimed to:

  •  Sap Indian will and thereby win without fighting.
  •  Attenuate alliances, thereby limiting foreign support.
  •  Reinforce domestic will.

Psychological warfare (xinlizhan), can occur at the tactical, operational, or strategic level. But, according to some PLA analyses, it is at the strategic level that psychological warfare may have the greatest impact, since it may undermine the enemy’s entire will to resist. Psychological warfare at that level is aimed not only at an opponent’s political and military leaders, but also at their broader population. It is also aimed at one’s own population and leadership cohort, in order to strengthen the will to fight. Finally, it also targets third-party leaders and populations, in order to encourage support for one’s own side, and discourage or dissuade them from supporting an opponent.

In order to generate such effects, Chinese writings suggest that psychological warfare, including its subordinate areas of public opinion and legal warfare, will often begin before the formal commencement of open hostilities and will operate not only in the military and diplomatic realms, but also the political, economic, cultural, and even religious arenas, which cannot easily be done on short notice.

Public opinion warfare (yulunzhan) refers to the use of various mass information channels, including the Internet, television, radio, newspapers, movies, and other forms of media, to generate public support both at home and abroad for one’s own position and create opposition to one’s enemy. In this view, public opinion is now a distinct, second battlefield, almost independent of the physical one. The ability to shape the narrative, so to speak, including establishing moral ascendancy and justification, requires long-term efforts.

Legal warfare (faluzhan) is the use of domestic law, the laws of armed conflict, and international law in arguing that one’s own side is obeying the law, the other side is violating the law, and making arguments for one’s own side in cases where there are also violations of the law. As an example,
the Anti-Secession Law, passed on March 14, 2005, serves as a form of military deterrent/coercion (junshiweishe), through the use of legal warfare. Efforts by Taiwan to secede would therefore violate this law, and would lead to punishing consequences.

Ultimately, the combination of the “three warfares” constitutes a form of defense-in-depth, but one that is executed temporally (in order to delay an opponent) and politically (by fomenting public disagreement and doubt), rather than physically. It is aimed not only at an opponent’s leadership and public support, but also that of third parties. The goal remains anti-access/area denial; it is simply the means and the battlefields that have shifted. The above fits in with the Chinese concept as enunciated by Sun Tzu of winning without fighting.

While the present stand off is unlikely as of now to lead to a major conflict, it certainly is a tool being used by China to browbeat India into submission and at the same time, get world support for its action as being justified on legal grounds. This presents a unique challenge to India to maintain its position and standing in the comity of nations. The pressure tactics being employed by the Chinese need to be countered and along with that, the nation needs to be prepared for war, should such a contingency arise. While the focus of China’s military modernisation in the near term appears to be preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, analysis of Chinese military acquisitions also suggests the PLA is generating military capabilities that go beyond a Taiwan scenario and which have India as the possible adversary. The causative factors for conflict exist in an unresolved border between Tibet and India. China could also use war as a means to divert the attention of its people from domestic issues, to preserve the dominance of the Communist Party over the country. In case of conflict, the first step would in any case be setting up the strategic stage of the conflict, through the ‘three warfares’ —psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare. This may well be a year or two before the actual conflict, in the hope of achieving its aims without the need to take recourse to war. In case China’s political aims are not achieved though the above, it could follow up with military actions, as under:

  • Cyber attacks to hit at Indian financial and economic institutions.
  • Exploiting the full range of space warfare capabilities to achieve space dominance.
  • Concentrated SRBM attack, at key command and communication nodes.
  • “Integrated Network Electronic Warfare” as described earlier along with limited kinetic strikes against key C4 nodes to disrupt Indian battlefield network information systems.

The Chinese would seek conflict termination at each stage of the escalatory ladder. Build up of troops in the Tibetan Plateau would take place simultaneously for ground action if the objectives have not been met by the means employed earlier. Thereafter, we could expect a conventional military conflict. From the Indian viewpoint, the conduct of a successful defensive battle would require negating Chinese actions at each stage. We would require very high capability in NCW, EW and space warfare. It is also essential that the IAF has dominance over the Tibetan plateau if a successful defensive battle is to be fought. Artillery voids need to be made up at the earliest and logistic  capability enhanced to defeat any Chinese designs on our Northern and Eastern borders. The real threat is not from the number of divisions which the Chinese can amass but from enhanced capabilities which we need to match and surpass. This must include the domain of psychological warfare and perception management operations.

(Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch is Director, India Foundation; Editor, SALUTE Magazine and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)).

(This article is carried in the print edition of September-October 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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