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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his seat for a meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not in picture) on the sidelines of a gathering of Foreign Ministers of the G20 leading and developing economies at the World Conference Center in Bonn, western Germany, February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski

(reuters_tickers)

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke by telephone with China's top diplomat on Tuesday and affirmed the importance of a constructive U.S.-China relationship, and the two agreed on the need to address the threat posed by North Korea, the State Department said.

Tillerson and Yang Jiechi, China's state councillor who outranks the foreign minister, also discussed economics and trade as well as potential cooperation on counterterrorism, law enforcement and transnational crime, the State Department said in a statement. 

The call appeared to be the latest effort by the world's two largest economies to put relations back on an even keel after a rocky start following U.S. President Donald Trump's November election victory.

"Secretary Tillerson and State Councilor Yang affirmed the importance of a constructive bilateral relationship," the U.S. statement said. "The two sides agreed on the need to address the threat that North Korea poses to regional stability."

The call follows a meeting between China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Tillerson on Friday, their first face-to-face encounter since Tillerson began his job at the start of this month.

In that meeting, Wang stressed that common interests between China and the United States far outweigh their differences.

Trump angered Beijing in December by talking to the president of Taiwan and saying the United States did not have to stick to the "one China" policy, under which Washington acknowledges the Chinese position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it.

Trump also accused China of not doing enough to rein in its neighbour North Korea.

However, in a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last week, Trump agreed to honour the "one China" policy, a major diplomatic boost for Beijing, which brooks no criticism of its claim to self-ruled Taiwan.

"China hopes the two countries, following through on the spirit of the phone conversation, could uphold the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation as well as enhance high-level exchanges," Yang told Tillerson, according to China's Xinhua news agency.

China's readout of the call did not mention any specific issues, with Xinhua noting only that they also "exchanged some views on a number of international issues."

On Saturday, China's Commerce Ministry said it would ban all coal imports from North Korea until the end of this year after Pyongyang tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in its first direct challenge to the international community since Trump took office.

China announced in April it would ban North Korean coal imports to comply with U.N. sanctions aimed at starving Pyongyang of funds for its nuclear and missile programs.

However, it made exceptions for deliveries intended for "the people's wellbeing" and not connected to the weapons programs.

Other areas of disagreement between the United States and China include trade imbalances and China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Cynthia Oserman and Paul Tait)

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