BEIJING (Reuters) - China is likely to appoint an expert on Japan and North Korea as its next foreign minister, three independent sources said, in a measure of Beijing's resolve to improve difficult relationships with two of its closest neighbours.
Barring last-minute changes, Wang Yi, 59, China's ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007, was likely to be appointed foreign minister during the annual full session of parliament next month, the sources said.
A fluent Japanese speaker, he was China's main representative to the six-party talks on North Korea from 2007 to 2008, and was a counsellor and later minister counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo from 1989 to 1994.
"China is sending a signal that Sino-Japanese relations will be the most important of important issues," a source with ties to the leadership told Reuters, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to foreign reporters.
Tensions over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea - claimed by Beijing as Diaoyu and by Tokyo as Senkaku - flared last year, raising fears of a miscalculation and an unintended military confrontation.
Wang was to replace Yang Jiechi, 62, who was tipped to be promoted to foreign policy tsar as one of five state councillors, the sources said. The post is senior to that of foreign minister.
The source with ties to the leadership said deteriorating ties with Japan could be improved.
"Wang Yi is like Zhou Enlai - a modest gentleman with a scholarly bearing," the source said, referring to China's first premier and foreign minister under communist rule. "He will exercise restraint, is rational and wise."
The islands, also claimed by Taiwan, are one of several maritime territorial disputes involving China that have worsened as Washington shifts its security focus to Asia.
Wang's two immediate predecessors were former ambassadors to Washington before taking over the foreign policy portfolio.
But mending fences with Tokyo will be no easy task.
"Japan must first recognise the Diaoyus are disputed," a second source said. "If Japan insists there is no dispute, then what is there to talk about?"
Since 2008, Wang has been minister of the Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office, which implements policy towards the self-ruled democratic island Beijing claims as its own.
During his time in that role, he has overseen steadily warming ties with Taiwan, including the signing of landmark trade and economic agreements.
From 2007 to 2008, Wang was China's point man on six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
Michael Green, a White House Asia adviser during President George W. Bush's administration, recalled Wang during those talks as "a very smooth diplomat who worked very hard to ensure that the temperature didn't go up and the water didn't boil."
Although Wang's calm and polite style did not achieve breakthroughs with the often testy North Koreans, he would be a "good choice" for China's relations with Japan, said Green, now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
"He's nuanced with and understands Japan - which Yang Jiechi did not. Wang Yi will be much better at the soft power piece that's been missing in China," he said.
North Korea conducted a third nuclear test on February 12 and is ready to go ahead with a fourth and possibly fifth test.
China is the North's only major ally and while it appears to be exasperated with the isolated state's belligerent behaviour and is likely to agree with U.N. sanctions, it is not likely to cut food or fuel supplies.
"Wang Yi is familiar with the North Korean issue, but it is complicated and more difficult (to resolve) than scaling the heavens unless the United States is willing to help," the second source said.
Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun, 60, was widely expected to become minister of the Communist Party's International Department, which deals with foreign political parties, including Pyongyang's ruling Workers' Party of Korea, the sources said. Zhang was vice minister of the department from 2000 to 2009.
Another vice foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, 60, was to be named ambassador to the United States, the sources said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Peter Cooney)