China approves Japan expert as new foreign minister

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China's Xi Jinping (left) and Li Keqiang at the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, on March 16, 2013

Newly-elected Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang arrive to vote during the election of the new vice premiers, foreign and defense ministers during the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on March 16, 2013.

China's parliament on Saturday approved Wang Yi, a former ambassador to Japan, as the country's new foreign minister with tensions high between the two Asian giants over disputed islands.

Wang, 59, served as ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007 and was also a diplomat in China's embassy in Tokyo from 1989 to 1994. He reportedly speaks Japanese.

The change comes as China and Japan face off in the East China Sea over a chain of uninhabited islands claimed by both countries.

Japan administers the islands -- known in Japanese as Senkaku and in Chinese as Diaoyu. Tensions have simmered for years, but spiked last year when Japan's government purchased islands in the chain it didn't already own.

That caused widespread anger in China, where sometimes violent anti-Japanese demonstrations targeted diplomatic missions and businesses. Some Japanese in China also reported being attacked or harassed.

Both countries have scrambled jets to ward off moves by the other around the islands as the dispute has escalated.

Last month, Japan alleged a Chinese frigate had locked its weapons-targeting radar on one of its destroyers, though Beijing denied the accusation.

Besides Wang, the National People's Congress also approved a new defence minister, several vice premiers and other officials as part of a broad revamp of personnel as China concludes a once-a-decade leadership transition.

Communist Party chief Xi Jinping was elected by the rubber-stamp legislature as the country's president on Thursday and on Friday it elevated former vice premier Li Keqiang to the post of premier, sealing the changeover.

Wang replaces Yang Jiechi, who has served as foreign minister since 2007. The NPC, meanwhile, elevated Yang to membership in the State Council, China's cabinet.

As foreign minister, Wang will be the formal counterpart of officials such as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and will be seen as one of the key faces of China's diplomacy, though Yang may continue to wield influence.

Wang has been in charge of Taiwan affairs on the State Council since 2008.

Chang Wanquan, 64, a People's Liberation Army general who in recent years has been involved with China's space programme, was approved as the new defence minister.

As expected, Zhou Xiaochuan was retained as governor of the People's Bank of China, the country's central bank, but changes were made in other posts related to the economy.

Lou Jiwei, chairman of sovereign wealth fund manager China Investment Corp., was named finance minister, while Gao Hucheng takes over as minister of commerce.

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