China and Taiwan began their highest-level official talks since 1949 on Tuesday, negotiations that could lead to the two setting up representative offices, though sensitive political issues are not likely to be broached.
The talks between Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi and China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun, who heads the Taiwan Affairs Office, mark a big step towards expanding cross-strait dialogue beyond economic and trade issues.
China's ruling Communist Party considers Taiwan a renegade province and has never ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its wing after taking control of the mainland in 1949. Exchanges between the mainland and Taiwan had stalled since the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated in a civil war.
Business and personnel exchanges resumed in the late 1980s, and in the early 1990s the two sides started to engage with each other through the mainland-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), and its Taiwan counterpart, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). The ARATS and SEF are non-governmental organisations founded in 1991 and 1990, respectively.
Economic ties have grown considerably in recent years. ARATS-SEF talks have speeded up since 2008 and produced a number of important cross-Strait agreements, including an agreement to lift the ban on direct shipping, air transport and postal services in 2008 and the long-awaited Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010.
Taiwan's Wang described his meeting with Zhang, in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, as "an unimaginable occasion in earlier years", China's official Xinhua news agency reported.
"Being able to sit down and talk is a really valuable opportunity, considering that the two sides were once almost at war," Wang said.
The mainland's Zhang told Wang that both sides should have "a little more imagination" regarding relations. "We meet under great attention and expectations and bear great responsibilities," Zhang said.
In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping said a political solution to the standoff between the mainland and the island could not be postponed forever. But Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou later said he saw no urgency to hold political talks and he wanted to focus on trade.
Taiwan and China are also expected to discuss Taiwan's participation in international bodies and issues on medical care for Taiwan students in China, Wang said last month, though he ruled out talks on "sensitive political issues".
Nanjing was China's capital during the rule of the Nationalists, until they fled to Taiwan in 1949 upon loosing a civil war with the communists. The city is also the burial place of Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of modern China, who is revered by both mainland China and many in Taiwan.
Since taking office in 2008, Taiwan's Ma has signed a series of landmark trade and economic agreements with China, cementing China's position as Taiwan's largest trading partner.
But booming trade has not brought progress on political reconciliation or reduced military readiness on both sides. Many in democratic Taiwan fear China's designs for their free-wheeling island.
Despite the close economic ties, US-armed and backed Taiwan remains a potential flashpoint and its recovery is a priority for China's ruling Communist Party, which is investing billions to modernise its military.