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New top diplomats in China signal focus on U.S., Japan, North Korea

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attends a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart in Moscow February 22, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attends a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart in Moscow February 22, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is signaling that it is keen to get on top of troubled ties with the United States, Japan and North Korea with the likely appointment of two officials with deep experience of these countries to its top diplomatic posts.

Current Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, ambassador to Washington from 2001-2005 and a polished English speaker, is tipped to be promoted to state councilor with responsibility for foreign policy, three independent sources said. China has only five such councilors and the post is senior to that of foreign minister.

Yang, 62, will likely be replaced as foreign minister by Wang Yi, China's ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007 and a one-time pointman on North Korea. Both will be appointed during March's annual full session of parliament, the sources said.

"Yang Jiechi will be in the driving seat, he knows a lot about Sino-U.S. relations," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"China-Japan is high on the list (too) ... With Shinzo Abe and the LDP back in the saddle in Tokyo, I'm sure they're a bit concerned about the right wing twists of domestic politics and Japanese foreign policy as well."

China has looked warily at the U.S. strategic "pivot" to Asia, fearing it is part of efforts to contain China's rising power, and both countries have fundamental disagreements about everything from human rights to trade.

China and Japan, the world's second-and third-largest economies respectively, have always had problematic ties due to Japan's occupation of parts of China until the end of World War Two. But the relationship deteriorated dramatically last year as a spat flared over ownership of a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.

Despite the rhetoric and fears of a military escalation, China and Japan have been trying to set ties back on track, in an acknowledgement of how crucial economic and investment links are. Japanese-speaking Wang should be able to help in this regard.

"It will be beneficial for handling China-Japan relations since he's been ambassador to Japan and knows Japan well ... It should help diplomacy and communication between both sides," said Huang Dahui, a Japan expert at Beijing's Renmin University.

The urbane Wang, 59, is regarded as a capable, smooth diplomat.

He won plaudits for helping improve relations with Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own, as head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office. The two have signed a series of landmark economic agreements under his watch since 2008.

The other turbulent area Wang has dealt with close up is North Korea, as China's representative from 2007 to 2008 to six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

North Korea conducted a third nuclear test on February 12 and is ready to go ahead with a fourth and possibly fifth test. China is the isolated state's only major ally.

However, despite these new senior diplomats, China's foreign policy will continue to be dictated by the party's top leadership.

"On the most important and difficult issues, the real decision makers on foreign policy are the top leaders," said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University.

"The roles played by the foreign minister and state councilor are fundamentally as advisers. So any fundamental changes in foreign policy would not come from them but from leaders much higher than them."

(Additional reporting by Terril Yue Jones, and Megha Rajagopalan in HONG KONG; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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