The foreign ministers of China and the Vatican have met in the first high-level encounter between the sides, a new sign of improving relations between two states with no diplomatic ties.

The talks between China's Wang Yi and Archbishop Paul Gallagher in the German city of Munich yesterday come as relations steadily improve following a landmark agreement on the appointment of bishops in 2018.

"Today is the first meeting between the Chinese and Vatican foreign ministers," Mr Wang said, according to the People's Daily newspaper, China's Communist Party official newspaper.

"This is a continuation of the exchanges between China and the Vatican for a period of time. It will open up more space for the future exchanges between the two sides," he said.

Mr Wang, who met Archbishop Gallagher on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, called the 2018 agreement "groundbreaking", adding that it "has achieved positive results".

In a statement, the Vatican said the talks were "cordial" and that contact between the two sides had seen "positive developments".

Mr Wang and Archbishop Gallagher "highlighted the importance" of the 2018 deal and reiterated a willingness to continue "the institutional dialogue at the bilateral level to promote the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people".

The People's Republic of China broke relations with the Vatican in 1951.

The Vatican is the only European diplomatic ally of self-ruled Taiwan, which is viewed by China as a breakaway province awaiting reunification.

China's roughly 12 million Catholics have for decades been split between a government-run association, whose clergy were chosen by the atheist Communist Party, and an unofficial underground church loyal to the Vatican.

But under the terms of the deal agreed in September 2018, both Beijing and the Vatican now have a say in appointing Catholic bishops.

The first bishop to be ordained under the deal was Yao Shun of the diocese of Ulanqab in the northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in August last year.

The law in China requires priests and bishops to register and align with the country's official church.

But the Vatican said at the time that the bishop, who it named as Antonio Yao Shun, had also "received the papal mandate" at the ordination.

Pope Francis has recognised seven clergy appointed by China as part of the deal, despite fears the accord would be used by Beijing to further crack down on worshippers outside the official church.

Mr Wang and Archbishop Gallagher also discussed China's efforts to contain the new coronavirus epidemic, which has killed more than 1,500 and infected at least 66,000 in the country.

Mr Wang said the outbreak has been "effectively controlled", according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The Chinese foreign minister also said the Vatican can play a constructive role to encourage the international community to support China's efforts to combat the epidemic "in an objective, rational and scientific manner", according to Xinhua.

Beijing has criticised the United States for banning arrivals from China and rejected US accusations that it has lacked transparency in dealing with the outbreak.