The Implications of the Three Warfares for Taiwan (Part 1)

The Implications of the Three Warfares for Taiwan (Part 1)

The Implications of the Three Warfares for Taiwan (Part 1)

Taiwan has traditionally been the primary target of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) employment of the “Three Warfares” (三戰), which consist of public opinion warfare (輿論戰), psychological warfare (心理戰), and legal warfare (法律戰). The approaches associated with the Three Warfares—underpinned by the aim of “disintegrating enemy forces” (瓦解敵軍) through non-kinetic measures—date back to the earliest days of the Red Army and draw upon traditional aspects of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Over time, the PLA has progressively developed a more systematic framework for the Three Warfares, under the aegis of wartime political work (戰時政治工作), which it has applied to Taiwan, the United States, and other countries.

This article—the first in a series of three—will review the PLA’s development of a systematic approach to the Three Warfares; the subsequent article will examine the PLA’s high-level strategic thinking on the Three Warfares, based on the publications of key research institutes; and the final article will consider more closely the PLA’s efforts to target Taiwan and suggest potential countermeasures.

The PLA’s Systematization of the Three Warfares

Beyond the PLA’s traditions of political warfare, the Chinese military has sought to formalize and systematize its approach to public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare over time. The 2003 Political Work Regulations (政治工作條例) incorporated public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare, which were the responsibility of the former General Political Department (總政治部). These Three Warfares were described as including carrying out “disintegration of enemy forces work” (瓦解敵軍工作), anti-psychological warfare (反心戰), anti-instigation work (反策反工作), and also military justice and legal services work (軍事司法和法律服務工作). Subsequently, the PLA sought to engage in more systematic research and training on the Three Warfares, including the development of curricula for educating officers in public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare. This process resulted in the publication of numerous articles in the PLA Daily and military region newspapers, as well as multiple books and textbooks on the topic.

Although certain aspects of the Three Warfares draw upon traditional practices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that date back to the time of the civil war between the Red Army and Nationalist Army (國軍), the PLA’s efforts to develop the expertise and techniques required for employment of the Three Warfares in the information age has entailed efforts to advance the sophistication and systematization of its strategy for their employment against perceived enemy forces. Certainly, psychological warfare draws upon the principles (e.g., “disintegrating enemy forces”) and practices of the Red Army under Mao Zedong, including the General Political Department’s establishment of an “Enemy Work Branch” (敵工科) in 1937. However, the PLA reportedly had no specialized (專門) psychological warfare troops until the dawn of the 21st century. Only as of 1999, and particularly after the 2003 political work regulations, did the PLA start to establish “experimental psychological warfare forces” (心理戰試驗部隊) in each military region, to create the psychological warfare major or specialty (專業) in military educational institutions (院校), and to  found psychological warfare research institutes. At that point, the PLA also recognized that future public opinion warfare, while informed by traditional “battlefield propaganda” with posters and leaflets, also required further innovation to be effective in the information age. Indeed, the PLA has since formulated a much more modern approach to public opinion warfare that exploits a variety of media outlets, especially those in cyberspace. Similarly, the PLA’s efforts to engage in legal warfare has required the development of education and expertise in the relevant aspects of international law and the laws of war.

In 2005, the Central Military Commission ratified and the former General Staff Department, General Political Department, General Logistics Department, and General Armaments Department jointly promulgated official guidelines (gangyao, 綱要, literally “outline” or “essentials”) for public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.[1] Through these gangyao, the concepts thus were officially incorporated into the PLA’s education and training and its “preparation for military struggle.” While the gangyao are not publically available, their release at that point indicated the PLA’s continued progression towards ensuring that the Three Warfares were not merely a rhetorical device, but corresponded with a concrete set of techniques and expertise that could be taught in the classroom and utilized on the battlefield.

In subsequent years, the PLA implemented institutional mechanisms that entailed a series of supporting documents and regulations, efforts to deepen Three Warfares education and training, the construction of specialized forces, the guarantee of equipment and materials, and also research and drills on operational art theories and actual combat. Reportedly, there was also progress in the construction (建设) of “Three Warfares forces” (“三戰”力量), while seeking to ensure that the concepts were conveyed and practiced throughout the PLA.

In some cases, the progress towards the establishment of Three Warfares forces or psychological warfare forces, which also are often situated within the PLA’s information operations forces, may have remained inconsistent. For instance, by one account, PLA’s “experimental psychological warfare forces” were still in an “exploratory” (探索) stage as of 2010. Further commentary on the topic of “specialized Three Warfares forces” emphasizes the importance of enhancing their education and training. While their full text is not publically available, the revised 2010 Political Work Regulations reportedly incorporated the experiences of education and training in the Three Warfares.

Since 2010, the General Political Department has also released “Instructions for Political Work in Military Training” (軍事訓練中政治工作指示) on an annual basis. Although the available reports about these instructions do not explicitly discuss the Three Warfares, these instructions reflect a consistent focus on incorporating various forms of political work into operational training.


For the PLA, the Three Warfares is not merely an abstract concept but rather has corresponded with a comprehensive agenda for advancing the capabilities required to engage in political warfare. Throughout its history, from the early operations of the Red Army through the present, the PLA has sought to utilize techniques of political warfare against its perceived adversaries. In particular, the Red Army sought to engage in “enemy work” against Nationalist Forces during the Chinese Civil War. The contemporary PLA has prioritized targeting Taiwan, particularly through the efforts of the former GPD’s Base 311 (61716 部隊), its “Public Opinion Warfare, Psychological Warfare, and Legal Warfare Base,” which might now be under the aegis of the PLA’s new Strategic Support Force, based on personnel transfers.[2]

Although the adverse impact of such political operations can be difficult to counter, especially for democracies, progression towards a clearer understanding of the PLA’s strategy for and operational approach to these forms of political warfare can provide additional transparency on the topic and perhaps enable more effective countermeasures. The following articles in this series will address these topics in further detail.

The main point: The PLA’s Three Warfares is not merely an abstract concept but rather reflects a systematic approach to “disintegrating enemy forces” that has deep historical antecedents and continued relevance.

[1] Wu Jieming [吴杰明] and Liu Zhifu [刘志富], An Introduction to Public Opinion Warfare, Psychological Warfare, [and] Legal Warfare [舆论战心理战法律战概论], National Defense University Press [国防大学出版社], 2014, p. 1.

[2] According to articles available through CNKI, Mu Shan (牟珊) was formerly affiliated with Base 311 (61716部隊) but, as of mid-2016, was affiliated with the Strategic Support Force.