TAIPEI — Representatives of Taiwan and China on Tuesday held their first official talks since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, a meeting expected to produce few concrete results but one that marked a symbolic development in the easing of the two sides’ longtime rivalry.
The setting was a resort hotel in the Chinese city of Nanjing, which was at times the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China before its government fled to Taiwan after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces.
“Before today’s meeting, it was hard to imagine that cross-strait relations could get to this point,” said Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.
The improved ties were “hard earned through efforts of generations,” said Zhang Zhijun, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, according to the state-run Xinhua news service. “We should cherish it and work together to maintain this favorable momentum.”
China considers Taiwan to be a part of its territory that must eventually be reunited. It has reacted angrily in the past to steps seen as moving the self-governed island toward formal independence.
In 1995 and 1996, it fired missiles into waters around Taiwan ahead of its first democratic presidential election, and it regularly denounced Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s independent-leaning president from 2000 to 2008.
Following the 2008 election of President Ma Ying-jeou, who favors closer ties with the mainland, Beijing has taken a more conciliatory approach. Cross-strait trade has nearly doubled over the course of Ma’s presidency, reaching $197 billion last year. Nearly 3 million Chinese traveled to Taiwan last year, constituting the largest single group of visitors following Taiwan’s easing of restrictions on mainland arrivals starting in 2008.
The two sides signed a landmark trade agreement, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, in 2010. Those negotiations were carried out by semiofficial bodies: Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.
A follow-up agreement to the trade accord that lifts barriers on cross-strait trade in services has been held up in Taiwan’s legislature as it debates possible effects on Taiwanese companies.
Until now, representatives of China and Taiwan have met only through unofficial organizations or through retired officials, as Beijing has resisted any steps that might be seen as recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Tuesday’s talks focused on ways to improve and formalize communications between the two sides. The two sides discussed trade and Taiwan’s participation in regional economic agreements.
Wang also raised consular-type visits to Taiwanese detained on the mainland, health insurance for Taiwanese students studying in China, and fair treatment of Taiwanese journalists working there, the Mainland Affairs Council said.
He also planned to research the concerns of Taiwanese working in China. The final day of his trip, Friday, will include a visit to a school for Taiwanese students in Shanghai.
While few breakthroughs are expected, the symbolism of the talks was considered noteworthy.
“They haven’t talked to each other on this level for 60 years,” said Jonathan Sullivan, a China specialist at the University of Nottingham. “The symbolic significance is there.”
If the two sides can reach an understanding on communication channels, such as establishing representative offices on each other’s soil, then the talks will have a practical importance as well, he said.
“The fact that they’re willing to come together and talk like this demonstrates significant good will and sets a precedent for how the two sides will interact in the future,” Sullivan said.
While tensions have eased somewhat in recent years, concerns about a closer relationship with China are widespread in Taiwan, said Tung Chen-yuan, an expert on cross-strait relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“Over the last five years, the Chinese government has made a lot of efforts to reverse this kind of trend in Taiwan, but they’ve been in vain,” Tung said. “They are anxious. They do not understand. And furthermore, if they would like to resolve the conflict between Taiwan and China, then they need to touch upon some critical issues, such as reducing the possibility of military confrontation between Taiwan and mainland China.”
For now, a discussion of such topics is unlikely. Ahead of his departure, Wang cautioned that expectations for the trip should be low.
“I don’t want to be overambitious,” he told reporters in Taipei. “If we just focus on how the Taiwan Affairs Office and the Mainland Affairs Council can in the future promote smoother cross-strait affairs, that’s good. You don’t want to overanalyze it.”
Even as the two sides spoke of closer ties, some developments revealed how many differences remain. China prevented Taipei-based reporters from Apple Daily, an aggressive tabloid newspaper, and Radio Free Asia, a broadcasting service that receives US government financing, from attending the meeting. While China maintains strict controls on domestic and foreign journalists, Taiwan is known for its aggressive media outlets.