updated 6/13/2008 12:48:30 AM ET 2008-06-13T04:48:30

Taiwan and China have agreed to set up permanent offices in each other's territory for the first time in nearly six decades of hostility, one of the biggest steps the political rivals have taken to build mutual trust.

There were few details and no time frame given for establishing the offices, which could perform consular functions such as issuing travel documentation.

Thursday's agreement came on the first day of talks between Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation and its mainland counterpart, the first formal talks between the sides since 1999. It lends strong momentum to efforts to build confidence and spur cooperation between the rivals, which divided amid civil war in 1949 and whose relationship has veered from strained to outright hostile.

Foundation Deputy Secretary-General Pong Jian-kuo said a consensus on exchanging offices was reached during morning talks, saying they would "facilitate people's exchanges and traveling across the Strait."

The unexpected announcement injected a touch of drama into an otherwise modest agenda that sought mainly to finalize agreements on charter flights and tourism.

"It's a very positive and healthy development in relations across the Taiwan Strait," said political scientist George Tsai of Taiwan's Chinese Culture University.

Offices would have limited functions
Tsai cautioned, however, that the offices would be limited to dealing with administrative matters and would offer little direct help in dealing with core political differences such as China's threatening missile arsenal and Taiwan's desire for diplomatic recognition overseas.

Taiwan's 19-member negotiating team is being led by Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation, and includes two vice Cabinet ministers — the highest-ranking Taiwanese officials ever to participate in bilateral talks.

Chiang told reporters in Beijing that the Chinese side were the first to propose the idea of opening offices during talks Thursday morning.

Ahead of the talks, Chiang had said the negotiations would lay the foundation for "a long-term peaceful relationship between the two sides."

His counterpart, Chen Yunlin, head of Beijing's semiofficial Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, said the public on both sides were counting on the talks to produce results and alter the often combative tone between the two governments.

"Whether cross-strait relations can improve depends on whether our negotiations can proceed smoothly," Chen said.

Beijing's communist administration, which seized power on the mainland in 1949, considers Taiwan part of its territory and refuses to recognize the government in Taipei, which means that negotiations must be carried out by semiofficial bodies.

The talks are scheduled to run through Friday at a state guesthouse in western Beijing.

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