Twenty-eight years ago, the United States and China used table tennis as a way to foster fledgling ties. Now, soccer might have taken its place as a way to smooth ruffled feathers.

In the first sign of an easing of months of tensions between Washington and Beijing, China's state-run New China News Agency released details of a friendly exchange between President Clinton and his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin over the Women's World Cup. The Chinese team lost to the Americans 5-4 in penalty kicks in last Saturday's final.

Meanwhile, Chinese sources today hinted that Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan would meet Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in Singapore later this month to try to improve ties that deteriorated after NATO forces bombed China's embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese. U.S. sources added that they hoped Clinton and Jiang would meet in New Zealand in September when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group gathers.

"That would be a chance to clear the air and advance trade negotiations," one official said.

The reports came as a State Department delegation arrived in Beijing to discuss compensation for the May 7 NATO bombing. The team is also expected to raise the issue of damage done to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and its four consulates in China, which were pelted with rocks and molotov cocktails after the bombing. The delegation, which is scheduled to stay in Beijing until Saturday, is led by the State Department's legal adviser, David Andrews, and includes Susan Shirk, a deputy assistant secretary of state. It marks the second time in less than a month that American envoys have come to Beijing to make amends for the deadly attack.

China's state-run press has contended that the attack could not have been accidental, as NATO has explained. The People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, has claimed that the United States was trying to cause "chaos" in China by bombing the Chinese mission. The Americans have argued that the attack was a mistake, but the Chinese rejected this explanation last month when the previous delegation, led by Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, came to Beijing.

Washington-Beijing relations were prickly even before the embassy bombing. Tensions over allegations of Chinese spying on U.S. nuclear-weapons installations, purported Chinese attempts to suborn the U.S. political system through campaign donations and a new Chinese crackdown on political dissent have roiled the relationship. The United States, for its part, has continued to sell weapons to Taiwan, which has infuriated Beijing. China views Taiwan as a renegade province. Washington has also moved recently to bolster defense ties with Japan and the Philippines, sparking fears in Beijing that the United States is attempting to encircle China.

Yet another threat to U.S.-China relations emerged this week when Taiwan's top official for mainland affairs said Taiwan was scrapping the "one-China" policy, the rubric that has made talks possible between Beijing and Taipei. Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui had earlier said all relations between China and Taiwan should be "state-to-state." That prompted irate warnings from Beijing. It also sparked concern in Washington about the United States being dragged into the middle of a spat between Taiwan and China, further souring U.S.-China relations.

Today, Taiwan's Lee told Daryl Johnson, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, that the self-governing island's policy toward China had not changed, according to an account by the Taiwanese official news agency. Johnson, who effectively acts as the American ambassador to Taiwan because the U.S. cut formal diplomatic ties in 1979 when it established an embassy in Beijing, met with Lee for 40 minutes.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said that Johnson had stressed that the Clinton administration supports the resumption of talks between representatives from both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

In the soccer report today, the news agency said Clinton wrote Jiang a letter after the U.S. squad beat the Chinese team in an overtime shoot-out. Clinton praised the spirit of the Chinese team, went to their locker room, and had a photograph taken of himself with the team that appeared in the Beijing Evening News, a state-run tabloid. The news report said Jiang replied to Clinton the same day--in contrast to the days following the bombing when the Chinese leader declined to take Clinton's calls.

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report from Washington.