Wang Yi

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Byline: Melinda Liu

A top diplomat on a tough assignment.

Wang Yi is urbane, multilingual, pragmatic, and, when needed, a wily negotiator. In short: he is everything a top diplomat should be. And that is a good thing, because as China's new foreign minister, he'll have his hands full.

A Japan specialist who speaks fluent Japanese, Wang's most urgent priority is the alarming deterioration of Sino-Japanese tensions, triggered by a territorial dispute and exacerbated by lingering memories of Japan's occupation of parts of China until the end of World War II.

The big question, however, is whether Wang and China's other professional diplomats have much room to maneuver, given growing nationalism and the mounting influence of hawkish generals. Xi Jinping, who officially became China's president this month, has exhorted the Army to "get ready to fight well and to win wars"--raising morale at home and even more concern in Japan.

"Wang is known for being a flexible, even brilliant, negotiator. But now the mood at home may not allow him much leeway," says a Chinese official who knows Wang and requested anonymity because he hasn't been cleared to talk with foreign media.

In contrast with many countries, key national-security decisions in China are made by just a handful of top-level Communist Party leaders, headed by Xi, the party chief. Wang, for one, doesn't even sit on the party's powerful 25-member Politburo.

"It surprises many Westerners when they learn China's foreign ministry doesn't have that much bureaucratic clout; it's actually quite weak," notes the official.

Wang spent six months as a visiting scholar in international relations at Georgetown University during the late '90s, before becoming China's ambassador to Japan in 2004--a time also marked by the deterioration of bilateral ties. …