China names N. Korea, Japan expert as foreign minister

China's parliament on Saturday approved Wang Yi, a former envoy to North Korean nuclear talks and ambassador to Japan, as the country's new foreign minister as tensions run high in Northeast Asia.

Wang, 59, was involved from 2003 in the early stages of so-called six-party talks -- efforts by China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.

A Japanese speaker, Wang was ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007 after previously serving as a diplomat in China's embassy in Tokyo from 1989 to 1994. Since 2008 he has been in charge of Taiwan affairs.

The change comes as tensions have soared on the Korean Peninsula since Pyongyang carried out its third underground nuclear test in February.

China, considered the country with the most influence over North Korea, signed off on a new round of UN Security Council sanctions against the country over the test.

Another regional flashpoint involves a face-off between Japan and China in the East China Sea over a chain of uninhabited islands claimed by both countries.

Japan administers the islands, which are 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 (NPC) also approved a new defence minister, four 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 rubberstamp legislature as China'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, approved Yang to join 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.

Jia Qingguo, a foreign policy expert at Peking University, said Wang's achievements include early successes in the now long-stalled six-party talks, while relations with Taiwan also improved under his watch.

"He works very hard and people have a high respect for him," he said.

Jia added, however, that Wang's experience in Japan was unlikely to be a significant factor in reducing tensions with Tokyo.

Japan was happy when Tang Jiaxuan, an expert on the country and fluent Japanese speaker, became foreign minister in 1998, Jia said.

"But then later on the two countries got into an intense dispute over history issues," he added.

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.

The retainment of Zhou as central bank governor shows the new leadership endorse his achievements and "wish to continue China's unfinished financial reforms," Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists Lu Ting and Hu Weijun said in a report.