For Trump, is Taiwan worth a war with China?

Of all the crazy things going on in the world, all-out war between the United States and China seems a remote threat. Yet that is exactly what a Chinese diplomat says will happen, if President Trump sends a U.S. Navy ship to visit our ally, Taiwan.

The communist regime in Beijing regards Taiwan as a mutinous province that will -- one way or another -- always be part of China. It has repeatedly warned that any Taiwanese attempt to declare sovereignty would be met with military action by its 2.3 million man army to “reunify” the island and mainland.

While the United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it is bound by treaty to come to its aid if the island is under attack.

So the words last month of a senior diplomat, Li Kexin, referring to Taiwan’s main seaport, need to be measured carefully. “The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force,” Li was quoted as saying at a Chinese embassy event in Washington.

Was Li speaking for China’s all-powerful president, Xi Jinping? Or was he getting, as the metaphor goes, “over his skies”?

“If this very sensationalist warning accomplishes its goal of scaring off the U.S. government, then it achieved its purpose,” says Vincent Wang, dean of the School of Humanities and Science at Ithaca College. “If it creates American pushback, then China has plausible deniability and can say that Li was speaking for himself, not the government.”

Chinese diplomats are not known for their independent thinking, so it is probable that Li was authorized to float this trial balloon. Certainly, it is a challenge to Trump, who talked tough about China, but who, since taking office, has tried to build a personal relationship with Xi.

Yet Trump also signed into law the 2018 Defense Authorization Act, which would allow port calls by U.S. Navy ships to Taiwan. Only Trump, as commander-in-chief, could authorize such a visit. But then, as the Chinese have figured out, Trump’s decisions can be unpredictable.

“The Chinese government wants to see which Trump comes forward,” says Wang. “Whether he is the businessman, for whom everything is for sale and can be negotiated, or if he stands really for America First, and is willing to use force for a good cause.”

In other words, China wants to know if, for Trump, a free Taiwan is part of making America great again.