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BEIJING: China formally appointed its two new top diplomats and defence minister yesterday, positions which had already been flagged in advance as part of the new government of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
Outgoing foreign minister Yang Jiechi, ambassador to Washington from 2001-2005 and a polished English speaker, was promoted to state councillor with responsibility for foreign policy.
China has only five such councillors and the post is senior to that of foreign minister.
Yang, 62, was 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 were voted in by the ruling Communist Party’s hand-picked delegates to the annual session of parliament, meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
It was reported on February 27 that both men were likely to get their new jobs, signalling that China is keen to get on top of troubled ties with the United States, Japan and North Korea.
Chang Wanquan, who has overseen China’s ambitious space programme, was chosen as defence minister.
From a humble background, he has advocated the military’s modernisation, something which has jangled regional nerves, and was the frontrunner for the job.
While he sits on the powerful Central Military Commission, headed by President Xi, he is not one of its vice chairmen. The defence minister is more of a figurehead who will be the Chinese military establishment’s face to the outside world.
Defence and foreign policy are both guided by the party’s inner circle, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, rather than by their respective ministers.
Still, all three men face challenging jobs.
China has looked warily at the US 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 last year as a spat flared over ownership of a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.
However, China and Japan have been trying to set ties back on track, in an acknowledgement of how crucial economic and investment links are.