China has sent its first ever ministerial-level official to Taiwan for four days of meetings to rebuild ties with the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own.
Protests in Taipei had set back relations earlier this year — and Zhang Zhijun had to go around scores of anti-China demonstrators to enter a hotel for the talks — but he said he was very happy to be the first Taiwan Affairs Office minister to visit the island.
"To reach Taiwan from Beijing I flew three hours, but to take that step took no less than 65 years," he said in remarks opening the meeting with his counterpart Wang Yu-chi.
China has described the trip as a chance for Zhang to understand the island better. Analysts say he will likely keep a low profile as he travels around Taiwan through Saturday, avoiding strong political statements during scheduled chats with students, low-income people and a figure in Taiwan's anti-China chief opposition party.
China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. China sees the island as part of its territory that eventually must be reunified — by force if necessary — despite a Taiwanese public largely wary of the notion of Chinese rule.
In 2008, Beijing set aside its military threats to sign agreements binding its economy to that of the investment-hungry island.
Dialogue opened that year as Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou agreed to put off political issues to build trust and improve the island's economy through tie-ups with China's much larger one. The two sides have signed 21 deals, boosting two-way trade to $124.4 billion last year and bringing in about 3 million mainland tourists, who were once all but banned.