Trump is aggressively provoking China. What is he thinking?

But it is also plausible that Trump is playing his pro-Taiwanese advisers like Stephen Yates for chumps, and using Taiwan merely as a bargaining chip in a high-stakes game of poker. Trump may be trying to create a crisis precisely in order to resolve it by trading away a harder line on Taiwan in exchange for concessions elsewhere — presumably on matters of trade. In that case, the biggest risk is that the Taiwanese — or any American allies in the region — take Trump’s promises to them seriously.

A Taiwanese declaration of independence, for example, would likely prompt a Chinese military response. Would America support Taiwan in that circumstance? It’s hard to imagine we would — but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t suffer badly from the fallout. In 2008 the Georgian president launched a campaign to oust Russian troops from rebellious regions of his country, believing he had American backing. Instead, his country suffered a humiliating defeat, and Russian-American relations were poisoned for years to come. The consequences of abandoning Taiwan in comparable circumstances would be far more severe and wide ranging.

The great unknown, and the key to answering any question about the future of U.S.-China relations, is a true sense of how Trump understands the rise of China within the context of the current system of global security that he has been so critical of.

From one perspective, America and China are in the early years of the second stage of a “power transition.” This is almost certainly how China understands the situation. And if they are correct, then America has a difficult diplomatic task ahead of it.