Leaders of political rivals Taiwan and China have met for the first time in more than 60 years for talks that come amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment on the self-ruled island and just weeks ahead of elections.

China's President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, shook hands at the start of the summit in Singapore on Saturday.

Taiwan-China relations

1949: Mao Zedong's communists take power in Beijing after defeating nationalists, who flee to Taiwan and form their own government

1971: Beijing takes over China's seat at the UN, previously held by Taipei

1987: Taiwan residents are permitted to visit China, leading to a boom in trade

1991: Taiwan lifts emergency rule, unilaterally ending a state of war with China

1993: First direct talks between the two sides are held in Singapore

1996: China tests missiles off Taiwan to deter voters in the island's first democratic polls

2005: Beijing adopts a law which makes secession by Taiwan illegal

2008: Taiwan and China resume high-level talks, suspended since 1995 after Ma Ying-jeou is elected president

2010: Taipei and Beijing sign an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement

2014: Beijing and Taipei hold first government-to-government talks since they separated in 1949

Before the leaders entered a closed meeting, Xi said the two sides are "one family" and cannot be pulled apart.

Ma responded by telling Xi the two sides should observe mutual respect after decades of hostility and rivalry and "respect each other's values and way of life".

"Even though this is the first meeting, we feel like old friends. Behind us is history stretching for 60 years," he said.

"Now, before our eyes, there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation." 

It was the first such summit since China's civil war ended in 1949.

The talks come ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan, in which the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is favoured to win, something Beijing wants to avoid.

The ruling Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT), retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the communists, who are still in charge in Beijing.

China has never renounced the use of force to bring what it considers a breakaway province under its control.

But while bilateral trade, investment and tourism have blossomed - particularly since Ma and his KMT took power in 2008 - there is deep suspicion on both sides, and no progress has been made on any sort of political settlement.

Symbolic meeting

No agreements were expected in what was seen as a highly symbolic get-together at a luxury hotel in Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese city-state that has maintained good ties with both sides for decades. 

Neither of the leaders was expected to address each other as "president", instead using "mister".


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Al Jazeera's Rob McBride, reporting from Beijing, said that China's state media has been largely positive in the lead-up to the landmark meeting.

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However, McBride said that Beijing was being careful not to make the summit appear as a meeting of equals.

"At this historic juncture of a meeting between leaders from both sides of Taiwan Strait, we genuinely hope that both sides can show sincerity, demonstrate goodwill, meet each other half way and confront their difficulties," China's official People's Daily wrote on Saturday.

In the heart of the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, about 1,000 protesters marched on Saturday to denounce the meeting.

But their anger was not necessarily representative of the public view of the summit.

"It's a good idea, and it's well timed," one woman told Al Jazeera. "I have faith in the president. I believe this could open a new chapter for Taiwan."

Taiwan lost its UN seat to China in 1971, and only 22 states formally recognise the island.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies