|Wang Yu-chi (left), head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, meets with Zhang Zhijun, director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, in Nanjing, China, Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap)|
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 high, the room was neutrally decorated with no flags visible and nameplates on the table devoid of titles or affiliations.
Before leaving, Wang told reporters: “The visit does not come easy, it is the result of interactions between the two sides for many years.”
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, 2 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 organizations.
Tuesday’s meeting is the fruit of years of efforts to improve relations.
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 U.N. in 1971 and seeing the number of countries recognizing 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. Wang said he would not sign any agreements, but added, “The main purpose of the visit is to help facilitate mutual understanding.”
Taiwan is likely to focus on reaping practical outcomes from the discussions, such as securing economic benefits or security assurances, while China has one eye on long-term integration of the island, analysts say.
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 neighbor, restoring direct flights and other measures.
In June 2010 Taiwan and China signed the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a pact widely characterized as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation.
Yet despite the much-touted detente, Taipei and Beijing have shunned all forms of 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-held 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.”
Nonetheless the mood surrounding the talks soured in Taiwan after Beijing refused to issue credentials to the Taipei-based Apple Daily and the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia on the weekend.
Taiwan said Monday it would raise the issue of press freedom with China during the talks.