Amid signs of reduced tension, the United States and China today held their highest level meeting since NATO missiles destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met with her Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, and they discussed their nations' relationship, the prickly issue of Taiwan, and security on the Korean peninsula. Tang later ruled out a prompt resumption of talks with the United States on China's accession to the World Trade Organization.

Albright described an "easing of tensions" and "the restoration of communication over a very friendly lunch." Tang, meanwhile, formally announced that President Jiang Zemin would be meeting President Clinton in September in New Zealand during an economic summit of Pacific Rim nations.

Today's meeting in Singapore occurred during a conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, comprising 10 member nations and several "dialogue partners," including China, Russia, Japan, India and the United States.

Albright's lunch with Tang marked another step toward repairing Washington's ties to Beijing. Those ties have been strained by the embassy bombing and by reports in the United States that China stole technology related to nuclear weapons and attempted to influence the U.S. political system with campaign donations.

The United States and China have tried to use the current crisis with Taiwan as a way to improve ties. On July 9, Taiwan's democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, announced he wanted to establish "special state-to-state" relations with China--breaking a decades-long policy that there is only one China and that mainland China and Taiwan were but "entities" in this one China.

Lee's announcement triggered a ferocious response by Beijing. Washington also criticized it and dispatched a representative to pressure Taiwan to modify its statement.

Today, Albright said that Richard Bush, the U.S. envoy to Taiwan, told Lee "that there needs to be . . . a peaceful resolution to this and a dialogue. And I think that the explanations offered thus far don't quite do it."

The United States wants talks between China and Taiwan scheduled later this year to go ahead. But the official New China News Agency today issued a commentary that said, after Lee's announcement, there is no basis for continued talks.

Albright added that she raised human rights issues with Tang, including China's recent massive crackdown on members of Falun Gong, an outlawed Buddhist-like spiritual movement. Protests waned today as arrests continued.

"I did mention the fact that obviously there are sects in other countries that may create problems," she said, "but that the right of assembly and the right for a peaceful expression of views is very important."

The officials also discussed the Korean peninsula. Washington is concerned that North Korea will carry out another missile test, similar to the multistage rocket test it launched last August. Western countries have tried to enlist China's assistance in convincing Pyongyang to stop the test, but China has been lukewarm.

Tang, for his part, stressed to Albright that China's government remained highly skeptical about the U.S. explanation for the Belgrade bombing in which three journalists were killed. U.S. officials have told Beijing that the bombing was an accident. Talks on U.S. compensation for the victims' families are also going slower than expected.

Western officials say that, partly because of this, China will not be resuming talks immediately with the United States on China's WTO entry.