China and Taiwan, at odds for more than six decades, agreed at historic talks on Tuesday to set up representative offices as early as possible, though sensitive political issues like a formal peace treaty were not up for discussion.
The two-hour meeting in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing marked a leap forward in official dialogue, sidestepping Beijing's refusal to recognize the sovereignty of the self-governing island, which split from China amid civil war in 1949.
While no formal agreements were signed during the event, both sides said just the fact that they had met marked a major step forward.
"The holding of this meeting marks a new chapter in our relations," Taiwanese envoy Wang Yu-chi said at a news conference after the talks.
Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for Chinese delegation head Zhang Zhijun, said the establishment of a regular channel of communication between the sides was the most significant outcome of the discussions.
"We bear a heavy responsibility. We can't let relations run into further obstacles, much less allow them to backslide," Ma said
The choice of Nanjing as the venue for the meeting resonated with participants because it was a capital of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government during the war against Mao Zedong's Communists before the Nationalists were forced 65 years ago to flee the mainland for Taiwan. It also is the location of the tomb of the founder of republican China, Sun Yat-sen, who is revered in both Beijing and Taipei.
Zhang said Tuesday's talks touched on Beijing's desire to see Taiwan ratify a trade services agreement that would allow the sides to open a wide range of businesses in each other's territory. Beijing approved the accord more than six months ago, but it remains stuck in Taiwan's legislature — a reflection of many Taiwanese people's fear of being overwhelmed by their giant neighbor.
It's in China's interest to build trade relations with Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory and wants to eventually reunite with. Previous threats to attack the island if it declares formal independence or delays unification indefinitely have only antagonized the Taiwanese people.
In 1995 and 1996, China fired missiles, conducted military exercises off the Taiwanese coast and tried to influence Taiwan's politics, further alienating the Taiwanese people. But China took a less confrontational approach a decade ago under then-President Hu Jintao.
The policy received a boost when the pro-China government of Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008, giving Beijing the opportunity to use the trade carrot as the centerpiece of its Taiwan policy in the apparent hope that it would force Taiwanese people to look at relations with China more favorably and quell anti-China sentiments.
"Most Taiwanese do not want to provoke China and all they want is for Taiwan businesses to grow," Andrew Leung, an independent China analyst, told Al Jazeera. "The closer the two sides are tied together, the better it is for Beijing...the better it is also for Taiwan economically."
Since 2008, trade between China and Taiwan doubled, to $197 billion last year. Taiwan enjoys a trade surplus with China — $116 billion in 2013 — one of the few countries or regions that can boast that. Taiwanese companies have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in the mainland, with companies like Foxconn employing millions of workers to make iPhones, PlayStations and other popular goods.
Taiwan also benefits heavily from an opening to Chinese tourists, who travel across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait.
Before the start of the talks, Wang said he would push for greater Taiwanese representation in international organizations — something Beijing has resisted.
But there have been indications that China is eager for political movement in addition to the economic ties, with Chinese President Xi Jinping telling a Taiwanese envoy at an international gathering in Indonesia last year that the issues should not be handed down from generation to generation.
Taiwan's Ma, however, later said he saw no urgency in holding political talks and wanted to focus on trade.
Al Jazeera and wire services