- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

BEIJING — China’s government abruptly replaced its foreign minister yesterday, elevating former Ambassador to the United States Yang Jiechi to the post in an early reshuffling of top positions ahead of key political meetings.

The removal of Li Zhaoxing as foreign minister had been widely expected — but not until much later this year when the ruling Communist Party convenes a once-every-five-years congress to reapportion top jobs.

At 66, Mr. Li already was a year past the customary retirement age for Cabinet ministers.

Along with Mr. Li, the ministers of land resources and science and technology also retired yesterday, and the executive committee of the national legislature announced their replacements, the government’s Xinhua News Agency reported.

The transition at the Foreign Ministry was unlikely to substantively alter China’s foreign policy at a time when Chinese economic and diplomatic might are surging.

Major policy directions are set by the communist leadership, especially President Hu Jintao, who has built a more assertive diplomacy to protect Chinese interests while avoiding major conflict.

The new foreign minister, like his predecessor, is a career diplomat regarded as an expert on U.S. affairs — signaling the importance China places on steady relations with the superpower.

“China emphasizes major-power foreign policy, and the U.S. is the most important major power,” said Shen Dingli, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Other countries can rest assured that foreign policy will not change.”

The Cabinet reshuffle was another sign of Mr. Hu’s firmer hold on power after five years on the job. He is certain to be given a second term at the party congress, which is expected to be held in the fall and which normally invites fractious infighting.

Two of the departing ministers, Foreign Minister Li and Science and Technology Minister Xu Guanhua, were closely associated with Mr. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who has retired but retains a waning influence.

As ambassador to the United States, Mr. Li excoriated Washington for what the U.S. said was the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 during the Kosovo war. He often testily rebuked journalists for questioning China’s hunt for resources in Africa and Latin America.

Mr. Yang, 57, is more low-key in approach. Shortly after becoming ambassador to Washington, he worked to defuse tensions after a U.S. EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and the plane and its crew were held at a Hainan Island air base in 2001.

A native of Shanghai, Mr. Yang studied at the London School of Economics in the early 1970s. He once served as an interpreter for former President George Bush in the mid-1970s when he ran the U.S. liaison office in Beijing, and Mr. Bush reportedly gave Mr. Yang the nickname “Tiger.”

That relationship with the senior Mr. Bush, as well as Mr. Yang’s command of English and his experience, were among the reasons he won appointment as ambassador to the United States when George W. Bush became president.

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