US, China to hold top-level talks on tensions: reports

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (pictured November 2018) met over nearly nine hours in Honolulu with senior Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi, in the two countries' highest-level meeting since the coronavirus pandemic sent tensions soaring (AFP Photo/MANDEL NGAN)

Washington (AFP) - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet a top Chinese official in Hawaii Wednesday in the powers' first senior-level talks since tensions skyrocketed over the coronavirus pandemic, reports said.

Pompeo will hold talks with senior Chinese foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, The South China Morning Post said, quoting an unnamed source.

Politico and CNN also reported on plans for the meeting. CNN said it would take place at Hickam Air Force Base next to Pearl Harbor.

The State Department did not comment on the reports.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that "more information will be given when available," saying only that the two countries were "maintaining communications via diplomatic channels," according to the state-run Global Times.

It will be the most senior in-person meeting between the two nations since January when Vice Premier Liu He met President Donald Trump at the White House to sign the first phase of a deal aimed at ending soaring trade tensions.

But friction has sharply intensified since then as the Trump administration, with Pompeo leading the charge, seeks to blame China for COVID-19.

Trump, under fire at home over his response to the pandemic, has pointed to China's early suppression of news of the virus when it emerged in the metropolis of Wuhan.

Pompeo has sought to popularize a theory, discounted by most mainstream scientists, that the virus came from a laboratory in Wuhan -- not a market that butchered exotic animals, as widely believed.

While Trump has described Chinese President Xi Jinping in friendly terms, his administration has increasingly cast the Asian power as an enemy, with candidates from his Republican Party running advertisements harshly critical of Beijing ahead of November elections.

The Trump administration has also taken measures in response to China's push for a new security law in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy activists fear an erosion of the financial hub's guaranteed freedoms.

And Trump is expected soon to sign into a law an act, widely supported in Congress, that would lay out sanctions against Chinese officials over alleged abuses in the western region of Xinjiang.

Activists and witnesses say that at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims have been detained in a massive brainwashing campaign.

China says it is providing vocational training to discourage Islamic extremism.

China has recently hit back by criticizing the United States over racism and police brutality following widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd -- including US police's use of force to disperse a peaceful demonstration outside the White House.

Yang, a veteran force behind Chinese foreign policy, also held a quiet meeting in August, in New York, to discuss tensions.