THE latest water cannon and ship ramming incidents against Philippine supply ships in Ayungin shoal by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and its militia arm have become a major security concern for Manila and its allies. On the surface, it shows China’s aggressive enforcement of its fictitious 10-dash line through intimidation and reckless maritime practices. However, a closer look at these events reveals an insidious disinformation campaign aimed at propagating Beijing’s narrative in the West Philippine Sea.

For instance, so-called Filipino security analysts continue to voice pro-Beijing narratives, accusing the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) of provoking the incident. Meanwhile, Chinese mainstream media have also accused the Philippines of violating its territorial rights and the PCG of unprofessional maneuvers at sea. This is combined with the deluge of troll postings, causing several Filipino officials to label these actors as traitors.

In general, this situation illustrates the extent and intent of the information operations against the Philippines. Thus, it is crucial for the country to be cognizant of Beijing’s playbook. Here are some of the key characteristics that will help us understand this strategy.

First, its philosophy is strategic. A 2018 Georgetown study referred to this as the “Three Warfares” framework. The concept defined non-kinetic operations (i.e., Malign influence, disinformation campaigns, etc.) as having three categories namely:

a.) Strategic Psychological Operations: This is composed of pre-conflict posturing using its military and paramilitary as well as other forms of national power to achieve its desired outcomes;

b.) Covert and Overt Media Operations: Dissemination of information through traditional media outlets, social media, and informal venues; and,

c.) Exploitation of National and International Legal Systems: This is where the PRC aims to leverage existing legal regimes, contest disadvantageous rulings, and constrain its adversary’s behavior.

Second, its actions speak louder than words. Beijing views the digital information space as a venue for strategic competition and has allotted the resources to dominate it. According to a 2021 study by the US-based RAND corporation, China spends $10 billion annually on information operations. In addition, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has transformed itself into an informatized force since the early 2000s. It believes that modern conflicts are waged in a networked (digitally interconnected) environment. It also views artificial intelligence as the preeminent tool that can dominate cyberspace and its information environment. To further ensure its efficacy, a united front approach is used for the purpose of shaping its narrative, influence public opinion, and support its disinformation campaigns.

For instance, it has an elaborate cyber-information warfare structure under its Strategic Support Force. It is allegedly organized to cover five theaters of operations with 12 bureaus, 14 offices, and numerous working groups. Several of these units are labeled as civilian organizations. Moreover, a 2017 estimate by the Foreign Policy places the size of China’s cyber army at around 50,000-100,000 personnel. In addition, the proliferation of troll farms and the use of social engineering techniques (i.e., Hacking the human, surveillance, etc.) are good examples of how Beijing is weaponizing the digital domain.

Lastly, learning from experiences is paramount. For instance, during Taiwan’s 2020 presidential elections, it was reported that the self-governed island experienced 20-40 million cyber-disinformation attacks per month. Similarly, during the visit of high-profile US officials in 2022, its government reported an astonishing 50 million attacks per day. Also, the 2019 Hong Kong protest showed this emphasis for disinformation, with government-linked posts portraying the pro-democracy demonstrators as members of ISIS and cockroaches. Another example is the DDoS attack against the messaging service Telegram, which was used extensively to organize the protest. Obviously, these attacks were intended to spread fear, panic, and confusion with the purpose of intimidating people and their governments. This unfortunate weaponization of cyberspace has become a hallmark for gray zone warfare not only in Taiwan and Hong Kong but in Southeast Asia as a whole.

A key takeaway from these events is China’s strong commitment to pursue its geopolitical goals in the Indo-Pacific region. For this purpose, malign influence, disinformation activities, and offensive cyber capabilities are crucial tools in its arsenal. Unfortunately, the Philippines finds itself on the frontlines due to its location in the first island chain and its renewed alliances with like-minded states.

Therefore, it is crucial to understand Beijing’s mindset and actions. Filipino officials and security planners must also avoid using their usual siloed and fragmented approach when dealing with such an elaborate campaign. Reactionary gestures and heightened emotions are understandable, but these tend to be short-lived and often become victims of short news cycles. Beijing’s vast war chest and refined doctrines can easily use a quid pro quo response to its advantage. Instead, knowing how malign influence and disinformation campaigns are developed, implemented, and reinforced can lead to innovative ways to mitigate their adverse impact. The experiences of Hong Kong and Taiwan can provide Filipino policy makers and security planners with valuable insights on how to counter and be more proactive in its approach against disinformation. This implies that a coordinated national and multi-stakeholder effort is more desirable. Transparency, effective communication, and sustainability are several factors that must be considered when mounting a strategic response.

The Philippines should not be alone in this fight. The country can leverage the commitment and collective expertise of its allies and partners. It will also benefit the Philippines if it continues to internationalize these incidents by putting a spotlight on the persistent bullying and reckless behavior of the CCG and its militia arm in the West Philippine Sea. In the end, the truth and the country’s adherence to a rules-based order will further strengthen its credibility.

Finally, we must all realize that disinformation campaigns are more than a nuisance or a source of annoyance. It is a deliberate effort that aims to weaken a country’s resolve, foment division, and sow information chaos. It is constantly evolving and tends to merge offensive cyber capabilities with the practices of malign influence operation into one cohesive strategy. It is for this reason that the Philippines should embark on a collective defense strategy that will develop the programs and techniques on how to counter these threats.


Sherwin E. Ona, PhD is an associate professor of the department of political science and development studies at De La Salle University, Philippines. He is a senior fellow of the Philippine Public Safety College and the Stratbase-Albert Del Rosario Institute. Dr. Ona is also a module director and lecturer on cyber defense policies at the National Defense College of the Philippines. He is an auxiliary officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Commander.