South China Sea

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel is seen patrolling in the South China Sea in April. Chinese coast guard ships blocked and used water cannons on two Philippine supply boats heading to a disputed shoal occupied by Filipino marines in the South China Sea, provoking an angry protest against China and a warning from the Philippine government that its vessels are covered under a mutual defense treaty with the U.S., Manila’s top diplomat said Thursday.

Last summer’s collapse of Afghanistan has rippled east to Asia.

If the U.S. fails to show resolve in deterring a Chinese takeover of Taiwan in the 2020s, a neutralist tsunami could crack the semi-circle of pro-Western nations currently ringing China. Here I talk about South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and possibly as far south as Australia.

As a reporter, I lived and worked in Japan and South Korea for five years and visited all the above countries. They are happy to trade with China, but do not want to become Chinese protectorates. With the exception of Vietnam, all are free-market democracies.

Historically, fear of China prompted Japan to isolate itself from the world from 1603 to 1867. Korea in the 19th century cut itself off from China and Japan, earning for itself the nickname “the Hermit Kingdom.”

Since 1945, these countries have flourished behind a series of self-defense treaties — real and imagined — with the U.S. This status quo lifted all economic boats in the Pacific and created an enormous values space congenial to Americans: free-market democracies.

This solidarity would be fatally wounded if Taiwan were to fall under the control of mainland China. In the 1960s, American protesters lampooned the “domino theory” in Indochina. Unfortunately, the Pentagon was right. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to the communists one after the other. Thailand and the Philippines were severely threatened, but survived.

Today, China’s heavy-handed tactics are waking up the region. After Australia had the temerity to demand an international investigation of the virus laboratory in Wuhan, China responded with a boycott of Australian coal. Australia responded this fall by negotiating to buy silent, nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, insulting President Barack Obama and embracing China. Since then, Duterte has watched China convert atolls in the South China Sea into air bases. Last Tuesday, three Chinese Coast Guard vessels, a long way from home, blasted with water cannons Filipino sailors seeking, unsuccessfully, to resupply their own atoll base. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said Thursday: “China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off.” He asserted their Philippine Navy base is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty.

The linchpin to this regional Pax Americana is Taiwan. Taiwan is more than a political symbol, a la West Berlin during the Cold War. With a $700 billion economy, this island of 23 million people has the world’s 20th largest economy, between Switzerland and Poland. Do you wonder why you can’t get that new car you ordered? Taiwan, the world’s largest producer of semiconductor chips, is struggling to keep up with post-quarantine global demand. To look for the brains of Taiwan, look no further than Boston. On Tuesday, Michelle Wu, daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, was inaugurated Mayor.

For almost 75 years, Chinese communists have branded Taiwan as the breakaway province, an illegitimate, pseudo-country populated by secessionists and renegades. When I visited, I soon realized that Taiwan is not an asterisk country. Taipei is a glittering, world-class Asian city, a notch below Tokyo and Singapore. Now, it is a notch above Beijing-controlled Hong Kong. Taiwan, like Singapore, is a part of the Chinese-speaking world that does not want to be part of China. But Singapore enjoys a 2,400-mile buffer from China. Taiwan is 200 miles offshore.

Today’s Taiwanese are too smart to fall for Beijing’s tired “One Country, Two Systems” siren song. Taiwanese like their multi-party elections, free press, female president, individual freedoms, rule of law and open economy.

So far this year, Chinese aircraft have violated Taiwan’s airspace twice as many times as last year. Last month, Chiu Kuo-cheng, Taiwan’s defense minister, warned that China would be able to invade by 2025. He described the current situation as the most dangerous in 40 years.

Fortunately, the Western world is waking up to Taiwan and its importance to the Pacific west of Hawaii.

Two weeks ago, in a sign of shifting European attitudes, Raphael Glucksmann, a French member of the European Parliament, led the Parliament’s first delegation to Taiwan. “We came here with a very simple, very clear message: You are not alone. Europe is standing with you,” Glucksmann told Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in a meeting broadcast live.

This fall, after the Western Pacific’s typhoon season, the U.S. led a series of naval maneuvers with almost all the navies of the region — except for China’s.

Diane Francis, an analyst often skeptical of the Biden Administration, wrote: “The U.S. has done a clever end-run around Beijing by meeting first with its Quad partners, a military alliance comprised of India, Japan, and Australia, then announcing that the U.S., UK, and Australia will send dozens of submarines into the South China Sea and the East China Sea to protect China’s neighbors from intimidation and claims about offshore territorial rights. This marks the beginning of an Asian NATO and now most of the other Asian nations ringing China are beefing up their defense budgets and quietly scrambling to join forces with the Quad or its founding members.”

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping had a three-hour video call. Xinhua later reported that Xi told Biden that those in Taiwan who seek independence, and their supporters in the United States, are “playing with fire.” He added: “China is patient and seeks peaceful reunification with great sincerity and effort, but if Taiwan secessionists provoke, or even cross the red line, we will have to take decisive measures.”

Although China is famous for playing the long game, the Middle Kingdom may have alienated enough of its neighbors to now face China’s Harry Truman moment: containment.

P.S. On Nov. 27, I will give a talk at the Stockbridge Library titled “Ukraine: The Gates of Europe, Besieged by Russia.”

James Brooke, of Lenox, has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.