Remember the Bamboo Curtain? It's coming down.
After decades of hostilities, Communist China is eyeing better relations with its old rival and democratic holdout Taiwan.
This friendly move contrasts sharply with the tensions rising between China and many of its other neighbors, including Japan. There have even been fears that those disagreements could lead to armed confrontation.
A week after an unprecedented meeting between officials from Beijing and Taiwan's capital, Taipei, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Fan Liqing, suggested to reporters on Monday that President Xi Jinping is even considering a face-to-face meeting with the Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou.
This presidential summit would come hard on the heels of last week's surprise meeting in Nanjing, in which officials of the two countries that for decades have refused to recognize each other's legitimacy met for the first time in 60 years.
"Compatriots on both sides of the [China] Strait all hope that the leaders can meet," Fan said. "We have said many times that this is something we have upheld for many years, and we have always had an open, positive attitude toward it."
She declined to discuss a possible date for such a meeting, but the mere mention of the possibility indicates a trend that worries some in the region.
"The current situation is a reversal of the 1990s," says Vincent Wang, a political science professor at the University of Richmond. In the past two decades, Beijing adopted an increasingly aggressive stance toward Taiwan. At the same time, it tried to grow its economy by, among other ways, reducing tensions with neighbors like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
"Now China's policy is more aggressive with those neighbors, but more conciliatory toward Taiwan," Wang says.
While the new thaw is unlikely to lead to China's ultimate goal of gobbling up the autonomous island - a fate that, according to polls, is opposed by the vast majority of Taiwanese - Wang says China's neighbors may have a reason to worry.
"The waters off Taiwan's east coast are very deep," Wang notes. Near Japan's shores and with no major barriers all the way to Hawaii, Taiwan's east coast could be "a very good port for China's submarines," he says. While no agreement for such use is currently being discussed, China may use its new ties with Taiwan to seek one, which would constitute a strategic military threat that needs to be watched carefully.
As of yet, the other neighboring countries are not concerned. "Taiwan will never allow China to use its military facilities," said a Tokyo foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Nevertheless, he added, "Beijing now sees greater importance in keeping Taiwan completely within its sphere of influence - politically and economically."
Ever since China's nationalists were forced to retreat from the mainland to the island of Taiwan in 1949 and set up an autonomous country that has evolved into a full-fledged democracy, the two Chinas have been talking past each other. In 1971 the United Nations recognized Mao Zedong's People's Republic of China as the sole owner of the country's General Assembly seat, in effect kicking out Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China, which had been one of the U.N.'s original members.
Membership in the U.N. and other international bodies has been a tremendous source of friction ever since, as China diligently bans Taiwan's participation in any global forum, fearing it may indicate tacit recognition of Taipei's independence. When Taiwanese journalists try to enter the U.N.'s New York headquarters, Chinese diplomats quickly get on the phone to make sure that they don't receive an entry pass.
More acutely for Taiwan, Beijing continues to block any Taiwanese attempt to join international treaties. This may endanger Taiwan's hopes of signing on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the behemoth new regional trade zone proposed by President Obama as part of his policy of "rebalancing" toward the Pacific. Taiwan, which leads the world in manufacturing motherboards and laptops and is a powerhouse in many other high-tech industries, is eager to join the new trade arrangement.
Several sources in the region say U.S. officials had indicated in recent private conversations that Washington would help Taiwan join the Partnership, which would unite America and 11 countries on both sides of the ocean in a free trade deal. The chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Edward Royce, who visited Taipei Thursday, expressed his hope that Taiwan will be included too. The Taiwanese government has created a special office to promote TPP membership.
Taiwan depends on exports for 70 percent of its economy, and in recent years much of that trade and business has gone to the mainland. In 2010, 29 percent of the island's exports went to China. Now it is 40 percent, and China has become Taiwan's largest trading partner.
Taiwan President Ma has increased ties with mainland China, establishing regular flights that allow tourists and businessmen to visit and do business on both sides of the strait. Major Taiwanese manufacturers operate on the mainland, taking advantage - like everyone else around the globe, but more so because of its intimate ties of culture and language - of China's labor force, also known as the "world factory."
But "Taiwan will not be forced to reduce trade with the rest of East Asia and the West," says Brian Su, deputy director general of Taipei's Economic and Cultural Office in New York. "China is Taiwan's number one trade partner," he says, "but diversifying the export markets is our ultimate goal." Joining the TPP, he adds, is therefore "our priority economic policy."
The TPP, however, may interfere with China's grand regional strategy, some neighbors believe. "Beijing cannot bear to have Taiwan completely on the U.S. side," says the Tokyo official. "It will hurt their 'core interest' and will be a huge domestic problem as well."
Ma's immediate predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, now jailed, was a nationalist who never hid his desire to declare independence. By contrast, Ma has been more conciliatory toward Beijing, agreeing to the concept of "one country, two interpretations."
On the other end of the strait, meanwhile, Xi has decided to relax hostilities as well, perhaps because he needs to reduce urgent concerns in Asia and in Washington over China's aggressive moves elsewhere in the region.
During a visit to Beijing last week, Secretary of State John Kerry warned China against setting up an air-defense identification zone in South China Sea areas also claimed by the Philippines and others. "It is important to resolve these disputes in a peaceful and nonconfrontational way," Kerry said.
Tensions over China's November announcement of a similar zone in the East China Sea, over areas that are claimed by Japan and South Korea, remain high. While Washington assures China's neighbors it would maintain its various defense treaties to avert Chinese aggression, it is also trying to reassure Beijing that it does not want to confront China.
China's surprising overture toward Taiwan may be seen as part of its larger regional strategy to reciprocate by reducing tensions, but while last week's Nanjing meeting, as well as the specter of a Ma-Xi summit, may usher further normalization in relations, the two countries are not likely to unite anytime soon, according to Wang, the University of Richmond's Asia watcher.
"China has never waived its ultimate goal" of annexing the island as part of a unification process, Wang says. Nevertheless, he adds, according to polls conducted by Taipei University, "over 80 percent of all Taiwanese favor the status quo over immediate independence or immediate unification."
Which may explain why, as China courts its former bogeyman Taiwan, alarm bells are not ringing yet in Japan nor the other neighbors who are increasingly wary about clashing with China.
"In order to have more breathing space in the international community, Taipei needs to maintain good relations with Beijing," says the Tokyo foreign ministry official. He added, however, that ultimately "Taiwan will remain on our - Japan and the U.S.'s - side."
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