LOS ANGELES — On the surface of things, it might not seem like such a big deal. Taiwan is to get recognition as an observer at an important world health meeting in Geneva to be held later this month. But in the context of Asian diplomatic history, it is a big deal.

For years Beijing has successfully blocked Taiwan’s participation — formal or otherwise — in everything from international organizations to beach volleyball pickup games. Beijing’s venom for a Taiwan that at any moment might declare formal independence scared everyone off — including the United States.

Instead of increasing the island’s “international space,” as diplomats put it, Taiwan’s independence ploy only sucked more air out of it. Few nations wanted to be seen standing close to Taiwan with the mainland dragon shooting fierce flames of diplomatic fire at the island — and at anything that got in the way.

China’s current leadership structure is never going to rest until Taiwan has morphed into some kind of Hong Kong — semi-separate but unequal, and an indivisible part of political Mother China. No government in Beijing that is seen to “lose” Taiwan to full independent status will have domestic political credibility.

The West can choose to ignore this fact, acquiesce to this fact, or fight this fact — but this fact will remain a staple of international life unless and until Beijing undergoes a profound regime change.

A cagey Taiwan leader might thus calculate that for Taiwan to avoid a suffocating bear-like Beijing hug, it should, ironically, embrace the theoretical idea of one China. By not denying the mainland’s overwhelming geopolitical pull on the tiny island of 23 million (versus the mainland’s 1.3 billion), the little guy could adopt policies to put the mainland’s geopolitical egomaniacs at ease. By getting Beijing to relax a little, Taiwan would get a little more room in which to play — and relax a little itself.

This, at any rate, might be the kind of political advice one would imagine Machiavelli giving a Taipei prince. And this, exactly, is the suave policy line now being pursued by Taiwan’s new president.

He may be special. Elected last year in a landslide over his discredited predecessor (leader of the pro-independence party now in jail for corruption charges), new President Ma Ying-jeou realized Taiwan faced but two choices: to persist in hitting its head against the Great Wall of China by constantly hinting at independence; or to avoid the repetition of stupidity by searching for a new way .

Accepting historic reality, it turns out, is the old way of the Kuomintang, the KMT, which is the party Ma represents. The party line has always been to accept the one-China principle, without getting too far into the details of how exactly it might work. Back in 1993, in fact, Beijing and Taipei (then headed by a KMT government) met for the so-called “Wang-Koo Talks” in Singapore. These settled absolutely nothing, of course — but established a very nice precedent for negotiation rather than confrontation.

Ma has now reset Taiwan’s policy on this back-to-the-future course. And the result, so far at least, is just short of dramatic. Beijing, usually surly about everything Taiwan, has scrapped any objection to Taiwan officials dropping by at the Geneva health confab. This, given all the swine-flu concerns, means a measure of cross-strait health cooperation at just the right time. And it has suspended opposition to direct mainland investment in Taiwan.

Just this past week, China Mobile, the mainland’s government-owned wireless titan, said it would invest more than half a billion dollars in a Taiwan phone company.

The World Health Assembly concession is the symbolic blockbuster, though. In Taipei, officials were understandably exultant. “Taiwan’s gaining WHA observer status this year represents a concrete result for our government’s flexible diplomacy and symbolizes the positive development of cross-strait relations,” exclaimed Su Jun-pin, Ma’s government information office minister.

For its part, the mainland’s Ministry of Health issued an equally bucolic statement: “[This] shows our good will to achieve practical benefits for Taiwan’s people and indicates our sincerity to promote peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”

Is this all too good to be true? Who knows, but maybe wiser heads on both sides of the strait are bobbing to the surface.

For the rest of the world, the strong possibility arises that, for the first time in memory, whatever might trigger war in Asia, tension between China and Taiwan might be one of the least likely causes. And what a tremendous new thing that would be.

Veteran journalist Tom Plate, a former university professor and author of “Confessions of an American Media Man,” is writing two books on Asia. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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