SEOULSouth Korea — Policymakers must defy increasingly effective and sophisticated Chinese disinformation efforts to get a realistic grasp of the issues and keep East Asia’s hot spots from exploding into war.

Amid an intensifying Chinese-U.S. battle for influence raging across multiple domains — ideological, political, economic and military — this key message emerged from the “Toward Peace in the Indo-Pacific” forum, organized Thursday in the South Korean capital by the Universal Peace Federation.

Given East Asia’s economic dynamism and the potential for conflict in numerous areas, the region’s importance is obvious even to distant leaders.

“Developments in the Indo-Pacific are having an impact on Southeast Europe,” Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti told the UPF forum. “India, China and Indonesia account for more than half of the world’s population … 60% of world GDP is concentrated [in the region], and it is home to seven of the world’s largest armies.”

Asian conflicts sometimes struggle to reach the front pages while carnage engulfs Ukraine, but analysts say several crises are quietly simmering and threatening to boil over.

Former Austrian Defense Minister and parliamentary speaker Werner Fasslabend said three Indo-Pacific flashpoints — the divided Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and the South China Sea — are “probably the hottest spots you can find in coming years.”

“What can be the means to secure peace?” Mr. Fasslabend asked.

The forum’s organizer, the UPF, is a global body founded by Hak Ja Han Moon, the widow of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The couple also founded The Washington Times.

Forum participants agreed that China stands out as the key to all three crises, either as a potential brake on North Korean aggression or as an accelerant in the clash with the U.S. and its allies over Taiwan and control of the South China Sea. China’s increasing efforts to shape the narrative with disinformation, an art at which China has historically excelled, are making all three problems harder to solve.

China’s “gray zone” tactics in the information wars are nothing new in the land that birthed master strategist Sun Tzu.

“Chinese strategy has a tremendous concern with manipulating the other side’s view,” said Michael Pillsbury, an analyst who has worked on China policy with multiple U.S. administrations.

This approach is visible in three Chinese characters: “fa,” “xi” and “mow.” Combined, they mean to counter, thwart or block the adversary’s strategy. The third character is also linked to deception, said Mr. Pillsbury, whom some consider a China hawk.

Related characters include “ma,” a sense of numbness or laziness, and “bi,” to prevent or paralyze. Combined, they mean lulling the opponent into complacency, Mr. Pillsbury said.

One problem with disinformation is that it raises conflict risks because neither side is getting or giving an accurate assessment of the dangers in store.

“Misperceptions on both sides or misperceptions about the balance of power lead to war,” he said. “Usually, no country starts a war it thinks it is going to lose.”

Complacency may explain outsiders’ weak appreciation of a deep historical debate within China. Many consider Confucianism — a philosophy of harmony, sincerity and righteous behavior — the pinnacle of Chinese thought and a guiding force for policymakers, but generations of thinkers inside China have challenged it, Mr. Pillsbury said.

Their question is whether it is better to be a Confucian leader or just look like one. For many, the ideal is to “appear to be a Confucian — honest, sincere and a lover of peace but inside to be ruthless and ignore the law,” Mr. Pillsbury said. 

President Xi Jinping publicly visited Confucius’ birthplace, so the debate remains relevant.

“Some books in China note that all Chinese dynasties were created by force,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “No voting.”

The China analyst, author of 2016’s “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower,” acknowledges that many scholars disagree with his thesis and insist Beijing has no such strategy. The divisions among analysts make jobs much harder for U.S. policymakers trying to calibrate Chinese relations.

“Getting China right is having a consensus and not just saying bad things, but having an action plan,” he said. “There are almost 100 ideas on how to deal with China, and many have been drafted already but need a majority to pass [Congress].

“All this legislation is failing,” he said. “It seems China and its friends are playing a role in this.”

Mr. Pillsbury praised former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the pragmatism of his China policy during the Trump administration. Mr. Pompeo acknowledged that many in Washington were slow to recognize the threat of a rising Beijing.

“We allowed this problem to advance, and that makes it difficult to confront,” he said. “We are going to have to live in a world that is real and factual. … When we turn away from truth and refuse to acknowledge evil’s existence, this is when we get conflict.”

The contest is not limited to two countries, said Mr. Pompeo, who was President Trump’s CIA director before moving to the State Department.

“I often hear that this conflict around the world is between the U.S. and China. I don’t believe that,” he said. “This is about the model that will be set for the entire world. … It is not about picking sides between U.S. power and Chinese power, but about decency, dignity and property rights.”

Recent developments suggest that realization is seeping through.

The way forward

Mr. Pompeo said he was “deeply heartened” to see South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s “bold initiative” to upgrade relations with Japan. Mr. Yoon’s effort to move past long-term historical disputes between the two key U.S. allies is unpopular at home but paves the way for greater trilateral cooperation with Washington against threats from China and North Korea.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is set to visit Mr. Yoon in South Korea on Sunday in the latest sign of warming relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

In the past two years, public opinion surveys found that China has replaced Japan as the least-popular country among South Koreans.

South Korean officials say they feel the change.

“I used to get calls from the Chinese Embassy but not anymore. Now the Japanese Embassy is asking to have meetings,” said Kim Geun-sik, who chairs the Unification Committee of South Korea’s ruling People Power Party. “This shows the changes going on.”

Long-held beliefs that China would move in a more liberal, democratic direction as its economy opened up to the world are evaporating, forum participants said.

Mr. Pompeo said Henry Kissinger-era China policies “may have made sense in 1972 or even 1982” but are no longer appropriate because of recent Chinese actions such as its aggressive stance toward Taiwan. The mainland has never ruled the island democracy, but the Chinese Communist Party claims it as a sovereign territory.

“We all know the reality: Taiwan is not part of China,” Mr. Pompeo said. “China has upset the understanding that [it] would not attempt to undermine Taiwan. … That was a central thesis, and Xi has made a fundamentally different decision. It is not Taiwan that is upsetting the status quo.”

Forum participants noted that authoritarian regimes in China and North Korea face challenges, notably a lack of “pull” power.

The North Korean leadership’s dilemma is “the prosperity of South Korea,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Pyongyang is further boxed in because its leaders know that war “would be the end of the dictatorship.”

Mr. Xi has different problems, Mr. Gingrich said.

The Indo-Pacific region is “not a U.S. empire,” but where democratic states such as Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan are coming together to ensure that “China cannot dominate.”

This “coalition of freedom” has a message: “We are happy to trade with you and live as neighbors but will not tolerate your dictatorship trying to control us,” Mr. Gingrich said.

The arc of the long Cold War clash between the West and the Soviet Union provides a glimmer of optimism for East Asia, Mr. Pillsbury said.

“There is a chance that China will have a peaceful democracy,” he said. “America did not bring down the Soviet Union; they did it to themselves. And America is not trying to bring down the CPP or bring down Xi.”

The problem now is not U.S. intentions but leadership paranoia in Beijing.

“Right now, Xi does not believe this,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “How can we get him to believe he lives in a much happier world?”