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China’s choice signals focus on Tokyo

Wang Yi as new foreign minister shows seriousness to improve ties

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo

The Communist Party of China will appoint Wang Yi, a former ambassador to Japan who heads the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, China’s Cabinet, as foreign minister, an apparent sign of willingness by the leadership to improve relations with Japan, according to sources.

The party’s decision makes it certain the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, will elect Wang in a Cabinet reshuffle during an annual session set to begin Tuesday.

During the session, which will run for about two weeks, the NPC is to elect Xi Jinping, general secretary of the party’s Central Committee, as president, and Vice Premier Li Keqiang as premier, replacing Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and ushering in the Xi-Li era as the country faces mounting challenges, including toxic air pollution, bureaucratic corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Wang’s planned appointment as foreign minister comes at a time when Tokyo and Beijing are locking horns over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The islets are administered by Japan but also claimed by China.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is expected to be promoted to state councilor in charge of foreign affairs, replacing Dai Bingguo. The post is vice premier-level and higher than the foreign minister.

Observers hope Wang’s rich experience with Japan will help improve bilateral ties, especially when China has been employing a hardline stance toward Japan since Tokyo purchased three of the five islands in the Senkaku group in September last year from a private Japanese owner to bring the chain under effective state control.

China has repeatedly sent marine surveillance ships into waters around the uninhabited islets to stake its claim that it effectively holds as much control over the uninhabited islets as Japan does.

A Chinese warship locked its weapons-targeting radar onto a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer in the East China Sea in late January, an act of provocation that Beijing denies. Another Chinese warship did likewise the same month targeting an MSDF helicopter.

Tensions with Japan and some Southeast Asian countries over territorial claims are likely to be one of the major issues to be discussed at the NPC and an annual session of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body, which opened Sunday.

Lyu Xinhua, spokesman for the CPPCC National Committee, said Japan must shoulder the consequences if it causes friction with China by disturbing “normal law enforcement” by China’s vessels and planes around the islands, which are known as Diaoyu in China.

“Under current circumstances, what is important is that Japan must stop any activities that do harm to China’s sovereignty over territory,” Lyu said at a press conference Saturday.

He said the two countries have maintained communications through diplomatic channels in order to not escalate tensions.

Japan has been urging China to resume talks to set up a bilateral maritime mechanism to avoid an accidental clash between the Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese military in the East China Sea.

China has been pressing Japan to recognize the existence of “a territorial dispute” between the two countries, but Japan maintains the Senkakus are an integral part of its territory and there is no territorial dispute between the two countries.

While the two countries seek to put bilateral ties back onto a normal path of development, they need to work out measures to ease tensions over the islets while dealing with the issue from a broader perspective, analysts say.

Chinese scholars say they do not expect to see major progress on the Senkaku issue until the House of Councilors election later this summer. If the ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, regains a majority in the Upper House, it could take major initiatives in diplomatic issues, such as those with China and North Korea, they say.

Along with senior positions in foreign affairs, the NPC will elect other state and government leadership posts, including vice president, vice premiers, state councilors, Cabinet ministers and the governor of the People’s Bank of China.

On Tuesday, Wen is expected to say China has set an economic growth target of a 7 percent for this year in his final report on the work of the government as premier.