WASHINGTON/BEIJING - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the need for cooperation and transparency over the origins of COVID-19 in a call with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi on Friday and raised other sensitive topics, including China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Yang, China's top diplomat, expressed Beijing's serious concern to Blinken that some people in the United States were spreading the "absurd story" about the coronavirus escaping from a Wuhan laboratory, Chinese state media said.
Head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of China's ruling Communist Party, Yang also told Blinken that Washington should handle Taiwan-related issues "carefully and appropriately," state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The call took place at a time when the two countries are at odds over issues ranging from trade and technology to human rights and the coronavirus. Washington should work with Beijing to put ties "back on track," Yang said.
The State Department said the diplomats also discussed North Korea policy and that Blinken expressed US concerns over the deterioration of democratic norms in Hong Kong and what Washington describes as the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region.
Blinken also called on China to stop its pressure campaign against Taiwan and to release "wrongfully detained" US and Canadian citizens, it said in a statement.
Yang, who had a fiery exchange with Blinken in Alaska in March during the Biden administration's first high-level meeting with its counterparts in China, said Beijing firmly opposed what he called "abominable actions" over the pandemic, which he said were being used to slander China, CCTV said.
The State Department said the discussion on North Korea focused on the need for China and the United States "to work together for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
It said the two diplomats also continued discussions on shared global challenges, including Iran and Myanmar, and the climate crisis.
"Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary stressed the importance of cooperation and transparency regarding the origin of the virus, including the need for WHO Phase 2 expert-led studies in China," it said, referring to the World Health Organization.
A report on the origins of COVID-19 by a US government national laboratory concluded the hypothesis of a viral leak from a Chinese lab in Wuhan was plausible and deserved further investigation, the Wall Street Journal said on Monday.
"We urge the United States to respect facts and science, refrain from politicizing the issue ... and focus on international cooperation in the fight against the pandemic," Yang said.
His comments on Taiwan followed a visit to the Chinese-claimed island last weekend by three US senators on a US military aircraft. They met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and announced the donation of 750,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine for Taiwan, drawing a sharp rebuke from China's defense ministry.