Outgoing foreign minister Yang Jiechi, ambassador to Washington from 2001-2005 and a polished English speaker, was promoted to state councilor with responsibility for foreign policy.
China has only five such councilors 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 central Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People.
Reuters reported on Feb. 27 that both men were likely to get their respective 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 program, was chosen as defense minister.
From a humble background, he has advocated the military’s modernization, 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 defense minister is more of a figurehead who will be the Chinese military establishment’s face to the outside world.
Defense 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 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.
The urbane Wang, 59, won plaudits for helping improve relations with Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own, as minister of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. The two sides have signed a series of 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 Feb. 12 and is ready to go ahead with a fourth and possibly fifth test. China is the isolated state’s only major ally.