China’s Three Warfares Goes Further Than Anyone Can Imagine

by Kevin D. Freeman on May 31, 2014

Two years ago, I wrote a cover story for The Counter Terrorist with the conclusion that China was at War with America. It was and is a different kind of war, but war nonetheless. The Chinese have been preparing for this new kind of war for quite some time. Primarily, it’s an economic war.


Just last year, the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) produced a report that came to similar conclusions. This report clearly acknowledged that there was a war underway, manifested in (at least) three dimensions and focused in Asia (and beyond, in our view).


China waging ‘Three Warfares’ against United States in Asia, Pentagon says

BY:  Follow @BillGertz  

China is waging political warfare against the United States as part of a strategy to drive the U.S. military out of Asia and control seas near its coasts, according to a Pentagon-sponsored study.

A defense contractor report produced for the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s think tank on future warfare, describes in detail China’s “Three Warfares” as psychological, media, and legal operations. They represent an asymmetric “military technology” that is a surrogate for conflict involving nuclear and conventional weapons.

The unclassified 566-page report warns that the U.S. government and the military lack effective tools for countering the non-kinetic warfare methods, and notes that U.S. military academies do not teach future military leaders about the Chinese use of unconventional warfare. It urges greater efforts to understand the threat and adopt steps to counter it.

The report highlights China’s use of the Three Warfares in various disputes, including dangerous encounters between U.S. and Chinese warships; the crisis over the 2001 mid-air collision between a U.S. EP-3E surveillance plane and a Chinese jet; and China’s growing aggressiveness in various maritime disputes in the South China and East China Seas.

“The Three Warfares is a dynamic three-dimensional war-fighting process that constitutes war by other means,” said Cambridge University professor Stefan Halper, who directed the study. “It is China’s weapon of choice in the South China Sea.”

Seven other China specialists, including former Reagan Pentagon policymaker Michael Pillsbury, contributed to the study. A copy of the assessment was obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. Disclosure of the report is unusual as most studies produced for the Office of Net Assessment are withheld from public release…

The Pentagon defines psychological warfare as efforts to influence or disrupt an enemy’s decision-making capabilities, to create doubts, foment anti-leadership sentiments, and deceive opponents.

Psychological warfare includes diplomatic pressure, rumors, false narratives, and harassment to “express displeasure, assert hegemony, and convey threats,” the report said.

For example, China’s economy has been used to threaten the United States with the sale of its large U.S. debt holdings, and state-controlled Chinese businesses have pressured U.S. businesses in China. Boycotts, restrictions on critical exports, such as rare earth minerals, and threats to use predatory trade practices are other Chinese soft warfare means.

For media warfare, also known as public opinion warfare, the Chinese use constant activities to influence perceptions and attitudes.

“It leverages all instruments that inform and influence public opinion including films, television programs, books, the internet, and the global media network (particularly Xinhua and CCTV) and is undertaken nationally by the [People’s Liberation Army], locally by the People’s Armed Police, and is directed against domestic populations in target countries,” the report said…

At present, the US government lacks an office to coordinate countermeasures to the Three Warfares.”


It is sort of amazing that ONA was actually allowed to release this report in an Unclassified Version. By contrast, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) ordered the Office of Net Assessment to review my original Pentagon study. Unfortunately, their report on my work was Classified to keep from public view. In addition, ONA has been under pressure at the Pentagon and this new report does not cast the Defense Establishment in the best light. It basically admits that the United States is unprepared to address non-traditional threats. For example, consider this from pages 19-20:

“Our war colleges and military research traditions emphasize kinetic exchange, the positioning and destruction of assets and metrics that measure success by kill ratios and infrastructure destruction. US Strategic analysis addresses the central challenge of battle space dominance and the optimum applications of C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance).

By adopting the Three Warfares as an offensive weapon, the Chinese have side-stepped the coda of American military science. Our institutional apparatus and intellectual traditions are focused on a different phenomenon when we speak of, or think of, war.

They have introduced a military technology which has not previously been considered as such in the West. It is a military strategy, we have not engaged, analyzed, or taught—as such–at our military academies. It is a new way of thinking about conflict that has the advantage of both obtaining the sought after objective and engaging the US in an asymmetrical manner that sets aside the potent body of military science and experience that has formed our view of war. They thus extend the notion of asymmetrical warfare into a new dimension with the question of “What is war?”; Can the spoils of war be obtained without fighting in 2013? The answer lies in the military function of time, and how success is measured. The challenge is to view these concepts in new light…

The report shares the official Department of Defense definition of the three warfare strategies as:


  1. Psychological Warfare – seeks to undermine an enemy’s ability to conduct combat operations through operations aimed at deterring, shocking, and demoralising enemy military personnel and supporting civilian populations.
  2. Media Warfare – is aimed at influencing domestic and international public opinion to build support for China’s military actions and dissuade an adversary from pursuing actions contrary to China’s interests.
  3. Legal Warfare – uses international and domestic law to claim the legal high ground or assert Chinese interests. It can be used to thwart an opponent’s operational freedom and shape the operational space. It is also used to build international support and manage possible political repercussions of China’s military.

Thus, at the most senior levels, the armed forces of the PRC have conceptualized a political warfare campaign composed of three elements with specific and interconnected aims.

In this respect, the Three Warfares report is right on target, but it does not go far enough in understanding the pervasive nature of China’s war effort. The effort is not confined to Asia. They have brought the war to our shores. Also, the report confines itself to Three Warfares when it should be more like a dozen. This is total warfare, or as the People’s Liberation Army calls it, Unrestricted Warfare. The key point, however, is that recognition of the Three Warfares and their effectiveness is an important step in recognizing the bigger picture.

We have demonstrated how the Unrestricted Warfare concept can enable cyber warfare or purpose a man-made stock market crash, or steal our Intellectual Property. It can also justify propaganda and meddling in our political and education systems. Don’t be fooled. Chinese-funded lobbying has been at work in manipulating our patent laws and other regulations. China has also added significant lobbying efforts targeting Congress to win friends and influence people. To address the American people, China has established a significant Hollywood presence and made a huge push into American education. Even the Chinese leadership has admitted that this is primarily a propaganda effort. Just one example is China’s support of Chinese language studies in the U.S. (and around the world):

Chinese media boast that these programs today reach more than 220,000 American students, a reflection of the booming demand for Chinese-language training as China rises in economic and strategic importance. With U.S. education dollars so often wasted, it’s no surprise that administrators appreciate Beijing’s offer of money (often $150,000 per year), plus instructors and teaching materials.

In return, Beijing wants a PR boost. Confucius Institutes “are an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup,” said Politburo Standing Committee ideology czar Li Changchun in 2009.


This is economic warfare in the big leagues–something very real that affects all of us but still under the radar of our national security establishment. What is most frightening is that these capabilities likely go much deeper than anyone has imagined. Has anyone considered, for example, the role that China might be playing in support of a suffocating regulatory environment? We know that China’s economy has often grown at double-digit rates in the past few decades while it is extraordinary for the American economy to better 3% per year.  One of the things that has hindered further American growth has been a massive regulatory push. In fact, according to one study, if regulations were held at the level of 1949, our economy would be four times larger than it is today. The median household income would top $330,000, rather than the $53,000 of today. China wouldn’t even be close to a threat. Instead, according to the International Monetary Fund, the Chinese economy is poised to pass our own as soon as this year.  Given that awareness and the ability to lobby both Congress and the American people, would you put it past China to secretly promote increased American domestic regulation in certain areas? Clearly this could be classified as REGULATORY WARFARE.

We know that in terms of the Global Warming issue, the Kyoto Protocol exempted China as an emerging nation. The stated intention was to deny Americans use of certain energy while allowing it for China. While the Protocol was not adopted in the United States, the idea of limiting “dirty” coal has been effective. At the same time, the Chinese have rapidly expanded their use of coal. We also know that the Soviet Union’s KGB may have pushed for American environmental regulations through “green” groups to hamper our economy during the Cold War. That’s just one example of the power of a total war concept. Combining lobbying of Congress and regulatory agencies with a full-blown media and education campaign and other psychological techniques could clearly lay the groundwork for manipulation in a number of areas, undermining the United States and bolstering China.

One ever-present Chinese influence operation has led to the pervasive belief that China would never harm American interests. This is perhaps the most successful modern propaganda effort accepted by a vast majority of Americans. Yet it flies in the face of clear statements and actions we have seen in recent years.

The National Security establishment is just beginning to become aware of the Three Warfares strategy in a limited way. We aren’t prepared to counter it and worse still haven’t even imagined how far it really could be taken. This is a clear economic war that has too long been ignored. Too few have caught on to this reality. One who “gets it” is Rachel Marsden as noted in her article last week:

U.S., China go private with the Cold War

2o May, 2014 by Rachel Marsden

PARIS ― The U.S. Justice Department filed charges this week against five Chinese military officers, accusing them of hacking American companies to steal secrets, including the nuclear energy company Westinghouse. In March, reports surfaced that the National Security Agency had hacked and spied on the Chinese telecom company Huawei.

Hard power hitting soft targets: This is a new characteristic of the rebooted Cold War. Except that even NATO has yet to recognize that economic warfare is just as critical as traditional military conflict…

Any sort of warfare between China and the U.S. would involve a similar economic dynamic. China is heavily invested in the U.S. economy through debt bonds, and the Chinese are as reliant on the U.S. for exports to the American consumer class as Americans are on China for its cheap foreign imports.

The battlefields of the future won’t necessarily involve armed soldiers and heavy weapons. Future battles might instead look like a couple of struggling swimmers clinging to each other at the surface while kicking and scratching underwater, trying to furtively knock loose change out of their opponent’s shorts.


Essentially, Marsden makes the point that China can hack American defense contractors and gain our national secrets, but the action would not be classified by NATO as an act of war. Rather it would be viewed as cyber crime without the potential for serious reprisal by the compromised nation:

So there you have it. NATO doesn’t really consider corporate spying to be cyberespionage, let alone cyberwarfare. It’s viewed as nothing more than “cyber information gathering” if it’s performed outside of the target nation. That’s quite the loophole, one that’s increasingly ripe for exploitation, given the trend of downloading of traditional military responsibilities onto private entities.

Did Chinese influence operations work to lower these standards at NATO for their benefit?  If they didn’t it was only because they didn’t think of it because such activity is clearly in their interest. They are playing an unrestricted warfare strategy and we are ill-equipped to recognize it let alone respond.

We are at war. The war is economic and it goes much deeper than anyone has imagined. Hopefully our policymakers will wake up before it is too late.

Previous post:

Next post: