NANJING— Taiwan and China hold official talks this week, a historic first for the two governments since a civil war ended more than six decades ago. Political differences still linger and while the two administrations do not officially recognize one another, some analysts think the talks could mark a small step toward more normal, official ties - and perhaps even be a prelude to a possible meeting between China's Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou later this year.
Since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008, Taipei and Beijing have made big strides in boosting economic ties.
However, as bilateral trade has boomed, Ma's approval ratings at home have sunk, hovering in the teens and low 20s for much of last year. Only halfway through his second term, there are concerns both for Ma and China's leadership that the political tide in Taiwan could be shifting away from Taipei's ruling Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang.
Taiwan holds legislative elections at the end of this year, and what Ma hopes to accomplish through the historic talks is the appearance of a breakthrough in relations, said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong.
"The political risk is that if the Ma Ying-jeou administration handles it well it may well boost his popularity and help to achieve better results in the important parliamentary and local elections to be held at the very end of this year, and if he fails, and if he mishandles these meetings and so on, this may become a point of criticism picked up by the opposition and adversely affect the electoral fortunes of his Kuomintang," said Cheng.
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the end of a civil war in the 1940s, when the Communists defeated the Nationalists. The Nationalists relocated to Taiwan and the Communist Party has ruled in China ever since.
For decades, China has considered Taiwan a part of its own territory and has not ruled out the possibility of using force to reach its goal of unification. In 1996, when Taiwan held its first democratic presidential elections, China lobbed missiles into the Taiwan Strait. In more recent years, however, Beijing has been trying to win Taiwan over with economic overtures instead.
The meetings in Nanjing this week between the two governments' top Taiwan-China policy officials are expected to be more symbolic than substantive. When the Nationalists fled China, Nanjing was their capital and so the visit will be an opportunity for Wang Yu-chi, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council minister, to revisit that historic past.
Cheng said the talks could also probe the prospect of a possible meeting between Ma and Xi Jinping later this year.
"China's leaders would like to achieve some breakthroughs in the remaining years of the Ma Ying-jeou administration. Ma is expected to step down in early 2016, and given the political situation at the moment, it is quite likely that the Democratic Progressive party, the opposition party, will win the presidential race," said Cheng.
Wang Yu-chi, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council minister, said the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation, which China will host in Beijing this November, would be an ideal place for the two presidents to meet. At such a forum, the two could be referred to as member economies and address each other as leader, sidestepping the politically touchy issue of how to address one another.
Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to see progress in relations with Taiwan. On the sidelines of the APEC Leaders Summit late last year, Xi told Taiwan's top envoy to the regional economic conference that the two sides political differences should not continue to be passed on from one generation to the next.
Wang Ming-yi, a journalist who has been covering Taiwan-China relations for more than two decades, said the first official face to face meeting will be a small window of opportunity.
He said the meeting is a reflection of the mutual trust that has been built up so far between the two sides since 2008 and the need to address political realities.
“Facing political realities is a step that has to be taken if you want to overcome more challenges and create more space for development of the relationship. But the fact that the step is being taken does not mean that all of the political differences, military and sovereignty issues that have cropped up since 1949 will all just be resolved,” Wang said. “These are still very big challenges.”
Taiwan's Wang Yu-chi will hold talks with his Chinese counterpart, Zhang Zhijun, on Tuesday in Nanjing shortly after his arrival. The following day Wang will visit a memorial for Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, and deliver a speech at Nanjing University.
After a short two day visit to Nanjing, Wang will travel to Shanghai, where he will meet with Chinese academics and visit a school for the children of Taiwanese businessmen before returning back to Taipei on Friday.