Beijing refuses to formally acknowledge the government in Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, and previous negotiations on cross-strait relations have been conducted by quasi-official representatives rather than government officials.
Wang Yu-chi, Taiwan’s minister of mainland affairs, called the meeting a “new chapter” in relations between the two sides and “truly a day for the record books,” according to wire service reports.
Zhang Zhijun, China’s representative, said the two negotiators could “definitely become good friends” but would need to show imagination to achieve breakthroughs in the future, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported. “We absolutely can’t let the relations between the two sides be turbulent again, and even more, we can’t backtrack,” Zhang said.
The two men had met only briefly and informally once before, on the sidelines of a regional summit in Bali in October.
The Chinese government keeps about 1,200 missiles pointed at Taiwan, according to the U.S. government, and Beijing has threatened to attack if the island ever declares formal independence or delays unification indefinitely. With the U.S. government committed to defending Taiwan in an attack, the issue remains a potential flash point.
Nevertheless, Beijing has taken a more conciliatory approach in the past decade, encouraging closer economic and cultural ties. In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou has fostered closer links since he took power in 2008, and trade has since doubled, to $197 billion, last year. The advent of regular direct flights between the island and the mainland has brought Taiwan an increase in Chinese tourism.
In October, Ma told The Washington Post that he wanted to improve ties further, talking about a “virtuous circle” of better relations that have yielded economic benefits and elevated Taiwan’s international standing. But Ma has become deeply unpopular at home, and his ability to make further progress with China before the next election, in 2016, may be limited, experts say.
Taiwan’s people remain firmly opposed to the idea of reunification with China, with about 80 percent supporting the status quo of de facto independence.
China also favors closer economic relations, and it is disappointed that improved trade and cultural ties have not changed the minds of ordinary Taiwanese people about reunification. Beijing is determined to keep up the pressure on the issue, with President Xi Jinping saying in October that the problem “cannot be passed down from generation to generation.”
Zhu Weidong, deputy director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said he had not expected any breakthroughs at the talks. “However, it is already very substantial to make such a meeting happen and set up such a communication mechanism.”
Taiwan broke away from the rest of China in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces fled to the island after their defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party troops. Taiwan has been self-governing ever since and held its first democratic presidential election in 1996.
Both governments claim to be the sole legitimate representative of China, but Beijing occupies almost all the posts in international bodies and has largely blocked Taipei’s representatives from taking part.
Wang said the two sides had not discussed the possibility of a meeting between the two presidents.
Liu Liu contributed to this report.