Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.06.10

Did China's "Three Warfares" Succeed in Singapore?

JBpress on June 06, 2014

The atmosphere at Singapore's Shangri-La hotel on the evening of May 30 was somehow unusual. The keynote speech by Shinzo Abe at the opening dinner of the 13th IISS Asia Security Summit last week received a more cordial welcome than expected. No other Japanese prime minister has ever drawn such favorable attention in an international conference on security issues like this.

In other words, China was almost completely isolated among the waves of regional concern about Beijing's increasingly assertive politico-military behavior. Although Tokyo has recently been irritated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s anti-Japanese propaganda, a critical defect of China's public diplomacy seems to have been exposed again in Singapore.

Indeed, China looked very defensive last week. What happened to Beijing's "Three Warfares"; which uses public opinion, psychological and legal warfare as tools to achieve its objectives? Australian, Vietnamese and even Thai defense ministers echoed their U.S. and Japanese counterparts in referring to "deep concerns" about "growing regional tensions" or "violation to international law."

The Chinese rebuttal sounded very weak, too. The People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Deputy Chief of General Staff stated that, "The Chinese delegation... had this feeling that the speeches of Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel are a provocative action against China," and that "I would prefer the attitude of Mr. Hagel (to Mr. Abe's). It is better to be more direct." Obviously, this is not the best argument for public diplomacy.

Pundits in Tokyo have long been terrified that Japan would be overwhelmed by the PLA's "Three Warfares" in international propaganda as described in the U.S. "Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2009":

- Public Opinion Warfare, which is aimed at influencing domestic and international public opinion to build public and international support for China's military actions and to dissuade an adversary from pursuing policies perceived to be adverse to China's interests.

- Psychological Warfare that seeks to undermine an enemy's ability to conduct combat operations through psychological operations aimed at deterring, shocking, and demoralizing enemy military personnel and supporting civilian populations.

- Legal Warfare that uses international and domestic laws to gain international support and manage possible political repercussions of China's military actions.

In a nutshell, China wishes to dissuade adversaries, if necessary by force, gain legal justification and win public and international support for China's military actions. However, none of these three seem to have been successful at Shangri-La this year. There are five good reasons why the Three Warfares continue to fail to achieve their objectives.

The first reason is China's excessive demonstration of power. This has long been Beijing's bad habit and has often made matters worse. China waged a war in 1979 to reprimand Vietnam, suppressed students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, launched missiles before Taiwan's presidential election in 1996, and of course used force against Vietnamese vessels before the IISS Asia's Shangri-La Dialogue.

The second is China's illusion that a state can control mass media. Beijing often asks foreign governments to stop media criticism against China. This is not only impossible but also counterproductive. If China wishes to influence domestic and international public opinion, she must provide the media with facts and policies which independent journalists truly appreciate.

The third reason is that their high-ranking leaders tend to flee from political difficulties. Two years ago, Beijing sent its defense minister to the Shangri-La Dialogue. However, since last year China has lowered the rank of its emissary back to its prior level, only sending the PLA's Deputy Chief of General Staff. They can escape criticism but do not know that escape means defeat in the dictionary of public diplomacy.

The fourth is China's broken record player. Chinese leaders tend to speak too long and seldom deviate from the official party line. The end result is a boring repetition of the same old stories ad nauseam. Xi Jinping reportedly criticized Japan to Barack Obama at a summit meeting in a beautiful Californian resort for over forty minutes, making the U.S. President sick and tired.

Finally, a headquarters for China's public diplomacy is missing. The party, the government and the military each have their own office to deal with public affairs. The three don't seem to coordinate well with each other in advance. Moreover, none of them seem to have enough expertise in international law, either.

If the issues driving these five reasons remain unaddressed, Beijing may be destined to fail in the world of public diplomacy. The highly renowned merits of the Three Warfares could end up becoming demerits. Although China's strategy is to "win without fighting," in reality she tends to "lose without fighting." If that's the case, Beijing requires a fundamental overhaul of its public diplomacy.