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Nanjing (China) (AFP) – 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.

“Both sides should make up our minds to never let cross-strait relations again become tormented and never go backward,” Zhang said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

“I believe that as long as we walk on the right road of peaceful development we should and certainly can get closer in the future.”

Separately, Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) said in a statement after the meeting that Wang officially invited Zhang to visit the island “to develop a deeper understanding of Taiwan society and the conditions of its people”.

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 recognizing it steadily whittled away. But it is supplied militarily by the United States and has enjoyed a long economic boom.

No official agenda was released for the talks — widely seen as a symbolic, confidence-building exercise — and Wang said earlier he would not sign any agreements.

Taiwan was looking to promote communication on culture, education, sciences and other subjects, according to the Taiwanese statement, while analysts say China has one eye on long-term integration of the island.

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 had until Tuesday shunned all official contact, with negotiations carried out through proxies.

While the 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.

The two sides agreed to set up a communication system between the MAC and Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, the Taiwanese statement said, but there was no mention of any potential meeting between Ma and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

“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.”

AFP Photo/Mark Ralston

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