Relations between China and Taiwan may slowly be thawing, a development which could reshape relations and power structures across the Asia-Pacific region. The leaders of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council are now set to meet in the Chinese city of Nanjing.

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Despite the obvious mission of both government agencies, this will actually mark the first meeting between the two heads of each department. The meeting will carry a lot of historical weight, and will take place in Nanjing, a city with plenty of history in regards to the relations of mainland China and Taiwan. Nanjing was the last capital for the Nationalist government before the Communist Party forced them into exile on Taiwan.

China and Taiwan tied together by national heritage

Technically, China and Taiwan are generally still considered to be one country. Taiwan is viewed by mainland China as a reengage province, while Taiwan has not wished to risk the ire of the mainland by declaring independence. Still, both regions maintain relatively cool relations with one another and separate foreign relations with other countries.

China, the world’s oldest nation-state, has a deep and complicated history. Around the turn of the 20th century, China was among the poorest countries in the world. By the 1920’s the Chinese Nationalist party was becoming a political force with the aid of the Soviet Union. At the same time, communist ideals were taking root in China.

In 1927 the Nationalist Party and the increasingly powerful Chinese Communist Party were drawn into conflict. In 1931, however, Japan invaded China, setting the stage for World War II in Asia. At the height of the Japanese invasion the Communist and Nationalist parties actually joined together to repel the Japanese, however, this tenuous alliance was short lived.

Following WWII, the Nationalist Party was forced off the mainland and essentially sent into exile to Taiwan. Initially, the United States and other world powers actually recognized Taiwan as the rightful government of China, but by the 1960’s it had become apparent that the mainland Chinese government was there to stay and quickly emerging as a force to be reckoned with.

Taiwan was forced to give the UN seat to the Communist Party and the mainland Chinese government was essentially recognized as the official government of China. The mainland government maintained that Taiwan was not actually an independent nation, but instead a rogue province.

Taiwan-China relations still major issue in Asia

China has emerged as Asia’s premier regional power with only the United States and Japan able to keep it in check. As China pushes outwards and exerts itself in Asia, the country has found itself in an increasing number of diplomatic and territorial disputes. The Senkaku Islands, South China Seas, North Korea, and other regional issues are all important for China’s foreign policies.

Still, none are as sensitive as Taiwan. For example, while many countries claim sovereignty over the S.E. Seas, China has largely avoided actions that might lead to war. On the other hand, the Chinese government has already stated that if Taiwan were to declare independence it would necessarily result in a war. Even though Taiwan has full autonomy, independence is simply not an option.

More complicated yet, Taiwan has previously signed defense agreements with the United States, which is still the region’s premier military power. Many believe that if China were to invade Taiwan, the United States would practically be forced to defend the country. If so, two of the world’s largest military powers could be drawn into conflict.

Given how complicated the relations between China and Taiwan are, the precedents set by the meeting in Nanjing could potentially be huge. Warming, or at least stabilizing relations between the two countries could help settle down an increasingly restless region. Still, while the meeting does represent a step forward, it’s only a baby step. Much work remains to be done and tensions will likely remain high between the two parties.