BEIJING – China has told Japan that it intends to replace its ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua, early next month, ending what has been an unusually long stint for a Chinese envoy in Tokyo, sources familiar with bilateral ties said Wednesday.
With relations between the two countries improving, Beijing has likely deemed it is in a position to send a new ambassador, the sources said. Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, considered an expert on Japan, is seen as a leading candidate to succeed Cheng.
News of the impending replacement comes amid expectations that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Japan in July, when the nation hosts the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. It would be Xi’s first trip to Japan since he came to power in 2013.
To formally begin their role, a new ambassador presents his or her credentials to the Emperor. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is willing to cooperate with China in making that happen in a swift manner, the sources said.
Crown Prince Naruhito is due to ascend the throne on May 1, the day after his father, Emperor Akihito, is set to abdicate.
Cheng became the ambassador to Japan in February 2010. For more than nine years he has been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to improve China-Japan ties, which have seen challenged by a territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Tensions between Tokyo and Beijing intensified in particular after the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Shinzo Abe’s predecessor, decided in September 2012 to bring the group of islets under state control.
The situation, however, has changed recently, with the neighbors last year marking the 40th anniversary of the signing and taking effect of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China.
The Senkakus, which are called Diaoyu in China, are controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing.
Cheng began working at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo in 1977, after studying at Soka University in Tokyo. He served as ambassador to Malaysia and to South Korea before being appointed ambassador to Japan in February 2010.
His tenure is the longest among Chinese ambassadors to Japan since Tokyo established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1972. Last year, Cheng worked to realize Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan and Abe’s trip to Beijing.
Kong, meanwhile, doubles as China’s special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs at a time when the international community is closely watching whether North Korea will achieve denuclearization as its leader, Kim Jong Un, has pledged.