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China taps Kong Xuanyou as new envoy to Japan: sources

This combined file photo shows Chinese ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua (L) and Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou. (Kyodo)

BEIJING (Kyodo) -- China has decided to appoint Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, considered an expert on Japan, as its next ambassador to the neighboring country, sources familiar with the matter said Wednesday.

Beijing has already told Japan that it intends to replace the current ambassador, Cheng Yonghua, early next month, ending what has been an unusually long stint for a Chinese envoy in Tokyo, the sources said.

As relations between the two countries have been improving, Beijing has likely deemed it an optimal time to send a new ambassador, they said. Kong, 59, has worked in Japan as a diplomat for more than 10 years.

The news of the impending replacement comes amid expectations that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Japan in June, when the nation hosts the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. It would be Xi's first trip to Japan since he came to power in 2013.

A new ambassador presents their credentials to Japan's emperor to formally begin their stint. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is willing to cooperate with China in making that happen in a swift manner, the sources said.

In Japan, Crown Prince Naruhito is due to ascend the throne on May 1, after his father Emperor Akihito's abdication the day before.

Some observers say China might be trying to reshuffle its diplomats in Tokyo, as the new imperial era Reiwa will start next month in Japan.

Kong doubles as China's special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs at a time when the international community is closely watching whether North Korea will achieve denuclearization as its leader Kim Jong Un has pledged.

Educated at Shanghai International Studies University where he majored in Japanese, Kong is a career diplomat who has so far served as ambassador to Vietnam and assistant foreign minister before becoming vice foreign minister in 2018.

Cheng, meanwhile, has been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts for more than nine years to improve China-Japan ties, which have been mired in a territorial spat over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Tensions between Tokyo and Beijing intensified after the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Abe's predecessor, decided in September 2012 to bring the islets under state control.

The situation has changed recently, however, with the neighbors last year marking the 40th anniversary of the signing and taking effect of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China.

The Senkakus, called Diaoyu in China, are controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing.

After studying at Soka University in Tokyo, Cheng started to work at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo in 1977. He served as ambassador to Malaysia and to South Korea before becoming ambassador to Japan in February 2010.

His tenure is the longest among Chinese ambassadors to Japan, which established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1972.

Last year, Cheng strived to realize Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Japan and Abe's trip to Beijing.

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