In China, major policies on diplomacy and national security are made not by the Foreign Ministry but by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which General Secretary Xi Jinping heads. Members of this top-level interdepartmental organ include representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the army, and the Ministry of State Security, as well as departments handling energy and foreign trade. But two Beijing sources close to the foreign-policy establishment say that Xi, who doubles as commander-in-chief of the military, has given the generals -- many of them fellow princelings, the offspring of party elders -- a bigger say in national-security issues than his predecessor Hu Jintao.
At least in terms of symbolism and atmospherics, however, the new diplomatic trio could take a more flexible approach to tackling the most worrying flashpoint in Asia: China and Japan's ferocious wrangling over the sovereignty of a group of islets called the Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan.
Given widespread perception within the party leadership that the intensification of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance -- which applies to the Senkakus -- is a centerpiece of Washington's pivot to Asia, the personnel changes in Beijing could also affect the style, if not the substance, of how the party will pursue relations with the United States.
Wang's return to the Foreign Ministry after five largely successful years as chief executor of Beijing's Taiwan policy is highly significant. A fluent Japanese speaker, Wang helped break the impasse in Sino-Japanese ties in 2001-2006, when Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister of Japan.
Koizumi infuriated the Chinese with provocative actions including annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors soldiers killed in World War II, including 14 war criminals. After Koizumi announced in June 2005 his plans to retire, Wang led the Chinese effort to mend fences by conducting secret talks with then Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the favorite to succeed Koizumi.
This discreet diplomacy resulted in Abe's visiting Beijing in October 2006, less than two weeks after he succeeded Koizumi as prime minister (Abe, after a five year break, was re-elected prime minister in December 2012). The visit came despite the ideological affinity between Koizumi and Abe, both of whom favored a more assertive foreign policy as well as the revision of the Japanese Constitution, which would enable Japan to convert its self-defense forces into a regular army.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry characterized Abe's 2006 trip as "ice-breaking." Abe allegedly made a private pledge not to visit the shrine while in office, and Beijing offered to focus on economic cooperation, while temporarily setting aside ideological and historical issues, according to diplomatic sources in Tokyo and Beijing.