NANJING, China: China and Taiwan on Tuesday held their first government-to-government talks since they split 65 years ago after a brutal civil war - a symbolic yet historic move between the former bitter rivals.
Taipei's Wang Yu-chi, who oversees the island's China policy, met his Beijing counterpart Zhang Zhijun in Nanjing on the first day of a four-day trip.
With sensitivities crucial, the room was neutrally decorated with no flags visible and nameplates on the table devoid of titles or affiliations.
The meeting was the fruit of years of slow efforts to improve political ties on the back of a burgeoning economic relationship.
"For us to simply sit at the same table, sit down to discuss issues, is already not an easy thing," Wang said in initial remarks, according to a statement.
"That we can sit here today, formally getting together, formally holding meetings, together exploring issues that people on both sides of the strait care about - this represents a new chapter for cross-strait relations, and is a day worth recording," he said, adding that he hoped Zhang could visit Taiwan "in the foreseeable future".
Nanjing, in eastern China, was the country's capital when it was ruled by Wang's Kuomintang, or Nationalist, party in the first half of the 20th century.
When they lost China's civil war - which cost millions of lives - to Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949, two million supporters of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China.
The island and the mainland have been governed separately ever since, both claiming to be the true government of China and only re-establishing contact in the 1990s through quasi-official organisations.
But Beijing's Communist authorities still aim to reunite all of China under their rule, and view Taiwan as a rebel region awaiting reunification with the mainland - by force if necessary.
Over the decades Taipei has become increasingly isolated diplomatically, losing the Chinese seat at the UN in 1971 and seeing the number of countries recognising it steadily whittled away. But it is supplied militarily by the United States and has enjoyed a long economic boom.
No official agenda has been released for the talks - widely seen as a symbolic, confidence-building exercise - and Wang said earlier he would not sign any agreements.
Taiwan is likely to focus on reaping practical outcomes such as securing economic benefits or security assurances, while China has one eye on long-term integration of the island, analysts say.
Detente and differences
The political thaw comes after the two sides made cautious steps towards economic reconciliation in recent years.
As the heirs of a pan-Chinese government, Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party accepts the "One China" principle and is opposed to seeking independence for the island.
Since it returned to power on the island in elections in 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou has overseen a marked softening in Taiwan's tone towards its giant neighbour, restoring direct flights and other measures.
In June 2010 Taiwan and China signed the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a pact widely characterised as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation.
Yet despite the much-touted detente, Taipei and Beijing have still shunned all official contact and negotiations have been carried out through proxies.
While these bodies - the quasi-official Straits Exchange Foundation representing Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits for China - have achieved economic progress, they lack the power to broach deeper differences.
Analysts say only government-level officials can address the lingering sovereignty dispute that sees each side claiming to be the sole legitimate government of China.
Tuesday's meeting will be watched closely to see whether it can pave the way for talks between Ma and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping - although chances of that happening any time soon are slim.
"The current interaction across the Taiwan Strait is quite positive," said Jia Qingguo, a professor of international studies at Peking University.
Ties have "been developing very fast, but the potential of this relationship has not been fully tapped (by) both sides," he said.
"But people should not expect too much out of it. It will take time for the two sides to get really integrated."
The mood surrounding the talks soured in Taiwan after Beijing refused to issue credentials to the Taipei-based Apple Daily and the US government-funded Radio Free Asia at the weekend. -AFP