China’s Approach to Conflict

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 1: People’s Liberation Army Fundamentals > China’s Approach to Conflict

1-54. China considers three aspects in the country’s view of conflict. They are Comprehensive National Power, deception, and the Three Warfares.


1-55. China describes warfare as only one waypoint along a continuum. Military power is only one component of Comprehensive National Power (CNP), the Chinese method of ranking countries based on an assessment of all types of state influence. Hard power includes military capability and capacity, defense industry capability, intelligence capability, and related diplomatic actions such as threats and coercion. Soft power includes such things as economic power, peaceful diplomatic efforts, foreign development, global image, and international prestige. These two types of power combine to make up CNP. China views CNP as a vital measure of its global status. Ultimately, all forms of conflict—be they military, diplomatic, or other—must enhance China’s CNP. CNP is viewed as a whole-of-government effort; the PLA is simply the military wing of CPC, so it makes sense to view military action as fundamentally political. The primary mission of the PLA is strategic deterrence, as illustrated in figure 1-3.

Figure 1-3. Comprehensive national power


1-56. Deception plays a critical role in every part of the Chinese approach to conflict. The Chinese emphasis on deception can be traced to Sun Tzu, who believed that it was the basis for all warfare. PLA views on this topic differ considerably from those of most Western militaries. Instead of being a peripheral enabler, deception operations are seen as integral to every operation at all levels of war. Where U.S. Army operational planning uses the concept of a course of action— a scheme developed to accomplish a mission (JP 5-0)—PLA planners use stratagems. Rather than describing friendly operations, stratagems describe the enemy’s mindset, focusing on how to achieve the desired perceptions by the opponent, and then prescribing ways to exploit this perception. Rather than focusing on defeating the opponent in direct conflict—as most Western militaries do—stratagems consider deception, trickery, and other indirect, perception-based efforts to be the most important elements of an operation. Deception is a fundamental aspect of the Chinese way of war, and applications of deception are considered a high priority.


1-57. China’s strategic approach to conflict employs Three Warfares designed to support and reinforce the PLA’s traditional military operations. These Three Warfares are—

  • Public Opinion Warfare.
  • Psychological Warfare.
  • Legal Warfare.

Though these approaches are called warfares, these strategies—in Western thinking—fall somewhere between modern concepts such as information operations and historical concepts such as military operations other than war or effects-based operations. Despite the names, they are universally nonlethal: they do not involve direct combat operations. Instead, they are designed to pursue what Sun Tzu considered generalship in its highest form—victory without battle. If a battle must be fought, the Three Warfares are designed to unbalance, deceive, and coerce opponents in order to influence their perceptions. In a major change from the past, when political officers were mainly involved in rear area personnel functions, the Three Warfares make political officers and soldiers into nonlethal warfighters who provide essential support to combat units.

1-58. Public Opinion Warfare is referred to as huayuquan, which translates roughly as “the right to speak and be heard.” To the Western mind this implies something along the lines of freedom of speech. Its meaning to the Chinese, however, is substantially different: it refers to the power to set the terms of a debate, discussion, or negotiation. In other words, it is China’s high-level information campaign designed to set the terms of political discussion. China views this effort as influential not only on PLA operations, but also in support of Chinese economic interests worldwide. China views Public Opinion Warfare as capable of seizing the initiative in a conflict before any shots are fired by shaping public discourse, influencing political positions, and building international sympathy. Public Opinion Warfare operations are seen every day in the PLA’s vast media system of newspapers, magazines, television, and internet sources that target both domestic and foreign audiences. Public Opinion Warfare supports the PLA’s Psychological Warfare and Legal Warfare activities in peacetime and war. 

1-59. Psychological Warfare is broadly similar to U.S. military information support operations in that it is intended to influence the behavior of a given audience. PLA Psychological Warfare seeks to integrate with conventional warfare and includes both offensive and defensive measures. The PLA views Psychological Warfare through the lens of Sun Tzu, emphasizing its multiplicative effect when coupled with comprehensive deception operations. Deception operations are critical to the PLA’s entire warfighting approach, and Psychological Warfare represents the major information operations element of deception operations. 

1-60. Legal Warfare refers to setting the legal conditions for victory—both domestically and internationally. The U.S. does not have an equivalent concept, although State Department diplomatic and legal operations have roughly equivalent objectives. Legal Warfare seeks to unbalance potential opponents by using international or domestic laws to undermine their military operations, to seek legal validity for PLA operations worldwide, and to support Chinese interests through a valid legal framework. Legal Warfare has emerged with a particularly prominent role via the various Chinese political maneuverings in the Western Pacific, particularly those areas surrounding international waterways, disputed land masses, and economic rights of way. Legal Warfare is present at the tactical and operational levels of war. It guides how the PLA trains to treat prisoners of war, detainees, and civilians, and how it abides by international legal conventions, codes, and laws.


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