China picks diplomat contingency to secure its place in Asia

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BEIJING -- China's new foreign policy team, announced at a news conference Saturday, includes officials whose records suggest the government will concentrate on consolidating what it considers the country's rightful place at the center of Asia, even as the Obama administration says it will deploy more military power in the region.

The team includes a new chief diplomat who has often pushed a hard line against the United States and a new foreign minister whose focus has been on Japan, Taiwan and North Korea.

The lineup of officials, announced with a raft of Cabinet ministers for the new government led by President Xi Jinping, lacks the power and influence of China's military. But the officials will be at the front line of managing Beijing's side of the escalating competition in Asia between China and the United States, and carrying out the policy decisions of Mr. Xi, who is already showing greater interest, and a tougher edge, in foreign affairs than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, did.

The White House said last week that despite cuts in military spending, it would pursue its "strategic pivot" to Asia, a policy that is interpreted in China as containment of its economic and military gains.

The departing foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, will step up to state councilor, making him the nation's chief diplomat and the most senior official that U.S. officials will deal with on a frequent basis, according to the announcement at the Great Hall of the People, where the National People's Congress is coming to a close.

As foreign minister, Mr. Yang often pushed a hard line on policy toward the United States. And on the eve of his new appointment, he suggested that Washington should play a lesser role in discussions among nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

"Asia-Pacific issues should be discussed and dealt with by the countries of the region themselves," he said at a news conference March 9, a reference that was interpreted by Asian diplomats as meaning that the United States should stay out.

The new foreign minister is Wang Yi, a diplomat experienced in Asian affairs who was China's ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007. Mr. Wang, until recently in charge of the Taiwan portfolio, does not have much experience with the United States, but U.S. officials know him from his role in leading six-party talks on North Korea during the administration of President George W. Bush.

The negotiations, led by China, were intended to end North Korea's nuclear program, and sometimes Mr. Wang showed his exasperation with the North, American officials said. The talks collapsed in 2008.

"Wang Yi is of the school that does not see China's future on the Korean Peninsula yoked to North Korea," said Victor D. Cha, a former director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council in the Bush administration, who participated in the talks.

The new ambassador to the United States will be Cui Tiankai, a genial diplomat, well versed in U.S. affairs and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Although Mr. Cui's appointment was not announced at the news conference Saturday, he will be heading to Washington to take up his new position at the Chinese Embassy in the next several weeks, according to Chinese and U.S. officials. He will arrive at a time of reduced expectations in Washington about the relationship with China.

The Obama administration is confronting China over cyberespionage in what many believe could become a watershed issue between the two countries. President Barack Obama's national security adviser demanded in a speech last week that the Chinese government stop the widespread theft of data from American computer networks.

"Cui is very good to have at the center of U.S.-China relations," said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That's not because he's pro-U.S. but because he's a subtle and wide-ranging thinker. He represents China's interests and then understands what might be accomplished."

In a signal of Beijing's increased emphasis on diplomacy in Asia, the Foreign Ministry last week appointed, for the first time, a special envoy on Asian affairs, Wang Yingfan. Mr. Wang, a former vice foreign minister, will concentrate on relations with Myanmar, a once-solid friend of China.

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