Did you hear that China has deployed its very first, domestically built aircraft carrier for sea trials and expects it to be in full service later this year? It’s conventionally powered with oil-fired boilers, but they have a nuclear powered one in the works which is expected to deploy by 2025. (Possibly sooner, since this one launched a year ahead of schedule.) They’re really upping their game when it comes to naval power.

But why? You don’t suppose it could have anything to do with threatening Taiwan and its increasingly independence minded government, do you? In fact it does. And I suppose we have to give the Chinese credit for not being sneaky about it. They’re coming right out and admitting that the carrier and its 35 fighter jets are part of the hammer they are ready to bring down on Taiwan if they start getting any funny ideas. (ABC News)

China says military exercises around Taiwan are intended as a direct threat to the self-governing island’s government over moves Beijing sees as cementing its independence from the mainland.

Spokesman for the Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office An Fengshan said Wednesday the drills demonstrate China’s “determination and capabilities to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

China claims Taiwan as its own territory to be brought under control by force if necessary.

Since her election in 2016, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has refused China’s demand that she recognize Taiwan as a part of China. That prompted Beijing to cut off contact, step-up military exercises and work to increase Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.

I can imagine what at least some of you are thinking upon hearing this news. Don’t we have enough problems in that part of the world already, particularly with the Korean Peninsula? Of course we do, as well as dancing around the edges of a brewing trade war with the Chinese ourselves. But between their expanding naval power and their artificial islands in the South China Sea, the situation is getting rather hard to ignore.

This might be a good time to review precisely what our obligations are regarding Taiwan and how much of a headache this might be for us. There are some foreign policy analysts such as Richard Bernstein who have traditionally claimed that the U.S. has an obligation on par with a formal treaty to defend Taiwan if it’s attacked. There’s a case to be made for that, but it’s not entirely clear. What we currently have to go by is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA).

Unlike some treaties we have with organizations like NATO, the TRA doesn’t come right out and say that an attack on Taiwan is an attack on the United States and will be dealt with as such. But it does include a number of interesting caveats which rather diplomatically state that America believes, “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” It goes on to say that anything other than peaceful means constitutes a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area.

That’s kind of vague, but in terms of what Taiwan can expect from us, the TRA says that we will, “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” What precisely does “defense services” mean in this context and is that before or after China starts bombing them? The document further requires the President to inform Congress of any imminent threat to the people of Taiwan and American interests in the area, instructing the two branches to jointly determine what action is appropriate in response.

So that’s about as clear as mud. Assuming the White House attempts to follow the TRA in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the President can basically throw it in Congress’ lap and force them to call for a military response. But can you imagine what a naval battle against China would look like in the 21st century? We’d be fighting right on their doorstep while the U.S. forces would be dealing with supply lines that span a significant portion of the globe. Neither of us wants a fight, to be sure, but the Chinese also clearly have zero intention of allowing Taiwan to declare independence.

So there you have it. I just thought I’d give you one more thing to worry about in case the rest of the international news wasn’t depressing enough.