Talks between China and Taiwan can only be a step forward

Little of substance is expected from the talks, but what is important is the symbolism

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After many months in which practically all the news from East Asia seemed to involve the revival of old tensions, finally there is a break in the clouds. This week, representatives of China and Taiwan sat down together in Nanjing, the capital under Chiang Kai-shek, and held discussions about improving bilateral relations.

Little of substance is expected from the talks, but that does not matter. What is important is the symbolism. The two Chinas have been locked in antagonism ever since Mao’s Red Army chased the nationalist Kuomintang into the sea in 1949. For six decades, two populations with the most ancient and intimate links have been locked in a bitter hostility which, once or twice, has threatened to spill into outright war. Now, finally, the political dream of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou – elected in 2008 – to bring Taiwan closer to the mainland, has been embraced by the mainland’s President Xi Jinping. The two sides met in a hotel suite from which all flags, maps or other visual reminders of Beijing’s longstanding claim to rule all China, including Taiwan, had been removed. The fact that the two sides addressed each other by their official titles was seen by Taiwan as “highly significant”. China will not modify its claim to the island by one jot or tittle, but even in that diplomatic limbo goodwill can still flourish.

That is why the meeting matters in the larger context of the region. The disputes surrounding China’s claims to sovereignty over much of the East and South China Seas have caused tensions to rise to dangerous levels. The best-known flashpoint is the group of uninhabited rocks known to the Japanese as Senkaku and to the Chinese as Diaoyu. The islands have been under Japanese sway since the end of the 19th century but are now claimed with increasing vehemence by China. Similar disagreements set Vietnam and the Philippines at odds with their giant neighbour. None of the disputes is anywhere close to resolution, but the quiet, mannerly discussions between old enemies in Nanjing this week raise the hope that diplomacy may yet prevail.

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