US secretary of state Antony Blinken stressed the need for co-operation and transparency over the origins of Covid-19 in a call with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi on Friday.
Mr Blinken also raised other contentious topics, including China's treatment of Uighur Muslims, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Mr Yang, China's top diplomat, expressed Beijing's serious concern to Mr 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.
Mr Yang, the head of the central foreign affairs commission of China's ruling Communist Party, also told Mr Blinken that Washington should handle Taiwan-related issues "carefully and appropriately", state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The call came ahead of the G7 summit in Britain attended by US president Joe Biden, which was expected to be dominated by Washington-led efforts to counter China's growing influence.
The world's two largest economies are deeply 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", Mr Yang said.
Mr Yang, who had a fiery exchange with Mr 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 US state department said the diplomats also discussed North Korea policy and that Mr Blinken expressed US concerns over the deterioration of democratic norms in Hong Kong and what Washington describes as the genocide of Muslim Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region.
Mr 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.
The state department said the discussion on North Korea – an issue on which the United States is keen for more Chinese action to press its ally and neighbour to give up its nuclear weapons – focused on the need for Beijing and Washington “to work together for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
It said the two diplomats also continued discussions on shared global challenges, including Iran and Myanmar, and the climate crisis.
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,” Mr 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 defence ministry. – Reuters