BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top diplomat, who recently met a senior adviser to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, is a high-flying former Chinese ambassador to Washington with a deep understanding of U.S. politics, a country he has clashed with, too.
State Councillor Yang Jiechi, who outranks China's foreign minister, met Trump advisers, including his pick for national security adviser, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, during a transit in New York on his way to Latin America in recent days, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Monday.
The spokesman gave few other details, other than that they exchanged views on China-U.S. ties and other important issues.
It's not clear exactly when the meeting happened, but Yang was scheduled to be in Mexico on Sunday and Monday. It's also not clear if Yang has been appointed a sort of special representative on China to deal with Trump.
While Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone shortly after Trump's election win, China had been coy about what contacts it has had with the Trump camp, saying only there has been communication.
The Yang meeting is the first time China has publicly mentioned any face-to-face talks between the two sides.
Yang, 66, is a career diplomat. Unlike Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he is a fluent English speaker, having studied at the London School of Economics in the 1970s before working as a translator for the foreign ministry.
He was first posted to the United States from 1983-87, and eventually rose to become ambassador, from 2000-2004.
"He's spent a lot of time there. He understands things there well from all sides," said Ruan Zongze, a former Chinese diplomat now with the China Institute of International Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.
"Certainly, China does not understand Trump well enough. This kind of contact and exchange is really needed and timely. It will help us to understand Trump, what he's all about, and who his team are."
One Beijing-based Asian diplomat, who has met Yang, told Reuters he can be charming in private, especially with his polished, British-accented English, but firm and unyielding in formal talks.
"He's a good representative for China," said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As China's foreign minister from 2007-13, Yang is probably best remembered for clashing with then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 over the disputed South China Sea at a regional summit in Hanoi.
As state councillor, Yang has continued his interest in the South China Sea, telling reporters in June during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that China had the right to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights.
"China hopes the U.S. will scrupulously abide by its promise to not take sides in relevant territorial disputes, and play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea," Yang said.
Yang has also been involved in security talks with India, China's giant southern neighbour which is suspicious of China's friendship with Pakistan. China and India have a festering border dispute dating back decades.
Editing by Ian Geoghegan