There is a distinct sense of déjà vu about panda diplomacy. Beijing, it might be said, is up to its old tricks, trading one of these outwardly winsome animals for another country's goodwill. Here we have an example of "soft power", as it might be said in today's social sciences jargon, at its most calculating and crudest.
Yet the panda transfer that takes place this week is a special one, for the recipient is Taiwan. And the idea that Beijing would be donating not just one, but a pair, of giant pandas to the people of Taiwan – still less that Taiwan would graciously have accepted – would have seemed not so very long ago verging on the delusional. Indeed, the prospect of a Taiwanese plane flying to a Chinese city for any purpose at all, least of all for collecting a couple of pandas, would itself have been almost unthinkable.
Amid the ever-deepening gloom around the world, however, the quiet rapprochement that has developed recently between China and Taiwan offers a rare flicker of hope. Regarded even last year as one of the most likely flashpoints for starting a Third World War, the dispute between Beijing and Taipei has dragged out for almost 60 years, with fluctuating degrees of tension.
Not only had this conflict started to look almost as intractable as the Middle East, but the conjunction of a United States more inclined to resort to armed force and a richer, more confident China, with aircraft carriers and a manned space programme, seemed to bode ill for any improvement in Beijing-Taipei relations. All this changed in May, however, when Taiwan inaugurated Ma Ying-jeou, a President committed to improving relations with China.
Since then, progress has been rapid. High-level visitors from both sides have crossed the Straits for the first time since 1949. Just last week, Taiwan and China began direct commercial flights, along with new shipping routes and postal links. China is also to welcome Taiwanese investors.
None of this means that reunification is in prospect – even though China has hopefully given the pandas names that, together, mean "unite". It does, however, mean that there may be one less point of friction in the world at the start of 2009, and for that, at least, we should be grateful.