Doklam Standoff : China playing out its ‘Three Warfares’ strategy against India

  • China’s ‘Three Warfares’ comprises media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare
  • Deploying this strategy, China gained supremacy over the Philippines in the South China Sea
  • China’s claim that Bhutan has acceded to Beijing’s sovereignty in Doklam is part of 3Ws strategy, experts say

Is China playing out its ‘Three Warfares’ strategy against India? Indian strategists who are involved with China in the current Doklam crisis believe China has now fully operationalized this concept and is applying it to the Doklam crisis.

The Three Warfares ::

The provenance of the ‘Three Warfares’ is not fully established. But according to sources, in 2003, China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) approved the guiding concepts for “information operations for the PLA, also known as “Three Warfares” (san zhong zhanfa). It was reinforced in 2010. Comprising public opinion/media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare, the Three Warfares have been critical components of China’s strategic approach in the South China Sea+ and beyond. It is now being applied in the Indian context.

China’s ‘Three Warfares’ against the Phillipines ::

In 2016, this concept was at work after the UNCLOS tribunal ruled against China in a comprehensive verdict dismissing China’s claims in the South China Sea.+ Despite the fact that the Philippines achieved a major international victory against the depredations of a more powerful but more aggressive neighbour, China, with its application of the Three Warfares, was able to successfully co-opt Rodrigo Duterte (Phillipines President) to its side. One year later, China has emerged victorious. Nobody mentions the UNCLOS ruling, and the Philippines has submitted to Beijing’s superior power.

Doklam: Media Warfare ::

In the Doklam context, China has been using this concept to influence domestic and international public opinion in support of China’s actions — in this case trampling over Bhutan’s claims and ripping up the 2012 agreement on tri-junctions. China’s state-owned media, foreign ministry, defence ministry and even foreign minister Wang Yi have let loose a barrage of statements+ and press briefings and commentaries, with the intention of dissuading India from its actions at the site.

Doklam: Psychological warfare ::

With every Indian media outlet amplifying the Chinese message, the idea is to use Indians to put pressure on the Indian government and get them to withdraw, largely by doubting India’s own assertions. Closely related is the psychological warfare unleashed by China — this has been everything from calling Sushma Swaraj a “liar”+ to saying the “countdown had begun”; assertions that China would rescind its decision on Sikkim or “free” Sikkim from Indian oppression; or that it could interfere in J&K”– all intended to “undermine India’s ability to conduct combat operations through psychological operations aimed at deterring, shocking and demoralizing enemy military personnel.”

Suddenly, pictures of 1962 war were flashed through Chinese media, which remains a sore point in India. Some Chinese commentaries even said 1962 veterans would send their children to fight India, since that was how angry the average Chinese was. Yet, As TOI pointed out+ some time ago, the Doklam issue was not among the top 50 trends on Weibo, their social media platform, which boasts 560 million followers!

The Indian non-response has been the worst thing for China. India’s China experts have led the way in the government and even the opposition refused to react to China’s tactics to prevent China from executing a war without firing a single shot.

Doklam: Legal Warfare ::

In 2016, the ‘Three Warfare’ operations exerted a strong “psychological frightening force” on everyone connected with the South China Sea issue. Official Chinese media described the arbitration as a “farce” which did not need to be obeyed, while officially the Chinese ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, argued that the arbitration case would “undermine the authority and effectiveness of international law,” justifying China’s rejection of it as a defense of “international justice and the true spirit of international law”. So China, the rule-breaker suddenly became China, the rule-defender.

Something similar is underway vis-a-vis India now, sources believe. Earlier this week, a Chinese official claimed that Bhutan had “accepted” Chinese sovereignty on Doklam forcing Thimphu to have to refute it. Thimphu could have, as Manila did, refrained from an official denial, which would have been recorded as a Chinese victory. While China claims Doklam as its own, they have conveniently glossed over the fact that Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of talks on this dispute.

As historian Srinath Raghavan has pointed out, the 1890 convention which China suddenly swears by, was not binding on Bhutan. The Chinese claim that Mt Gipmochi should be the tri-junction as mentioned in the 1890 convention is also “problematic.” “The principle of defining the boundary therefore was the highest watershed: the highest line of mountains separating the rivers flowing on either side. This is the most logical way of drawing a boundary in mountainous regions.

However, subsequent surveys showed that Mount Gipmochi is not on the highest watershed in the area. The latter is the line running from Batang-La to Merugla to Sinchela and then down to the Amo Chu river.”


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