In terms of concrete achievements, this week's cross-strait meeting may barely register a blip on the timeline of relations between the mainland and Taiwan. In terms of symbolism, however, it is a significant landmark for future historians. True, the principals were not heads of state, or even heads of government. But when Zhang Zhijun and Wang Yu-chi sat down at the same table, it represented the first government-to-government meeting since the end of the civil war in 1949, when the defeated Kuomintang shifted the seat of its administration to Taiwan. Zhang is head of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office. Wang is chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. The symbolism did not end there. The meeting took place in Nanjing, the seat of the KMT government before it moved to Guangzhou earlier in 1949, and now the location of the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait for his role in the 1911 revolution and the founding of modern China.
This shows the two sides are getting closer. While it produced no concrete results, the meeting smoothed the way ahead by setting up an official mechanism for communicating issues of mutual concern - or, as Wang explained, discussing policy rather than practical issues. These will remain the province of the existing quasi-government channels - the Straits Exchange Foundation in Taipei and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits in Beijing. The two bodies, set up in the 1990s, held landmark talks in Singapore in 1993 and have remained proxies for their respective governments since.
Government-to-government contact may signal greater emphasis on political issues. For example, Wang said the mainland agreed to be more understanding about Taiwan's efforts to join regional economic blocs in return for development of cross-strait economic links.
Until this week's meeting, senior mainland officials met Taiwanese officials as party members rather than government officials, through the good offices of semi-official organisations or retired officials. Hence the symbolism of the talks, seen by some as a step, albeit a very small one, towards cross-strait political reconciliation. Previously, mainland authorities did not recognise Taiwan as a government because they regard the island as part of China. Both sides now appear to be working towards a path for reconciliation after forging close business ties. This is a welcome development.