BEIJING -- China and Taiwan agreed to establish a formal government-level dialogue for the first time in 65 years, official media reported, after an historic meeting in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing.
Representatives from both sides smiled and shook hands warmly before Tuesday afternoon's session, the first formal talks since the country split in two in 1949, after a civil war.
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.
Taiwan's mainland affairs minister, Wang Yu-chi, called the meeting a "new chapter" in relations between the two sides, and "truly a day for the record books," wire service reports said.
China's representative, Zhang Zhijun, 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," Mr. Zhang said.
The two men had met briefly and informally only once before, on the sidelines of a regional summit in Bali in October.
The Chinese government keeps around 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 formally committed to defend Taiwan in case of an attack, the issue remains a potential flashpoint.
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 also fostered closer links since first taking power in 2008, and trade has since doubled to reach $197 billion last year. The advent of regular direct flights between the island and the mainland has brought a surge in Chinese tourism to Taiwan.
In October, Mr. Ma told The Washington Post that he wanted to improve ties further, talking of a "virtuous circle" of better relations that have yielded economic benefits and elevated Taiwan's international standing. But Mr. Ma has become deeply unpopular at home, and his ability to make further progress on ties 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 ties, but is disappointed that improved trade and cultural ties have not changed the minds of ordinary Taiwanese people about reunification. It is determined to keep up pressure on the issue, with President Xi Jinping saying in October that the problem "cannot be passed down from generation to generation."