By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - New Chinese leader Xi Jinping's appointment of two top diplomats last week displays a desire to repair relations with long-time rival Japan after months of disruption, while keeping the United States and its strategic pivot to Asia at bay.
Yang Jiechi, a hard-nosed former ambassador to Washington, has been named the state councilor in charge of the foreign ministry, its top post. A fluent English-speaker, he firmly believes the United States should stay out of regional Asian affairs such as the South China Sea dispute.
The new foreign minister is Wang Yi, a smooth and urbane diplomat who knows Japan well and will be in charge of repairing ties with Tokyo, damaged by a bellicose spat over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
"China really does not want to see this kind of confrontation with Japan," said Ruan Zongze, deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"The new foreign minister has worked in Japan, which shows how much attention we are putting on this issue. We will communicate more with Japan to ameliorate the situation."
The military, often an influential voice in foreign policy, has also been making a series of conciliatory commentaries about Japan, indicating Beijing wants to climb back from the worst dip in ties between the Asian powerhouses in years.
Nevertheless, Xi will be hamstrung by the same foreign policy restrictions that beset his predecessors.
China's prosperity depends on having steady and peaceful relations with its neighbors and with Washington.
But Xi will have to prove to an increasingly nationalist domestic audience that he is defending China's legitimate rights and winning the international respect the country deserves as the world's second-largest economy.
There will be pressure on him at home to maintain a strong position on the disputes over the East China Sea islands with Japan and on the South China Sea with Southeast Asian nations. He will also have to address a strong perception in China that the United States is actively trying to contain Beijing's growing economic and military might, especially with the pivot to Asia that President Barack Obama announced in 2011.
"Rising nationalism in China is a big challenge for Chinese leaders," said Wang Dong, an international relations professor at the elite Peking University, whose academics often act as a sounding board for government policy.
"Equally, there is very much a balancing act that Chinese leaders have to take between the domestic audience, their expectations, and the foreign policy goals of ensuring a peaceful external environment for China."
Despite the diplomatic focus on Japan and the United States, Xi has chosen to make his first foreign trip, later this week, to Russia, South Africa, Tanzania and the Republic of Congo.
Russia is a natural choice, as the two countries share many common points of view, such as over the crisis in Syria. China is also desperate to have a stable friend on its northern flank to counter growing U.S. influence in one-time good friend Myanmar on its southern borders.
Africa is strategically important for China too, driven by Chinese hunger for resources to power its economic boom and African demand for cheap Chinese products. China's trade with Africa exceeded $220 billion in 2012, up around one-third on 2011, according to Chinese statistics.
Nevertheless, Beijing has to address concerns that its state-owned companies have imported Chinese labor into Africa to run construction and other projects, while pumping out raw resources and processing them in China.
"We have told Chinese companies that they cannot just use Chinese workers," China's special envoy to Africa, Zhong Jianhua, told Reuters. "I think most Chinese firms now realize this."
But the ties between the world's number one and number two economies remain key.
Xi met Obama in Washington early last year and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was in Beijing this week, just days after Xi was formally installed in office, to underscore the importance of the relationship.
For China, State Councillor Yang, ambassador to Washington from 2001-2005 and the outgoing foreign minister, is seen as a man who can deal with Washington while articulating Beijing's position on tricky issues like the island disputes, the yuan currency and trade spats.
China has only five state councilors and the post is senior to that of foreign minister.
Wang, the new foreign minister, is seen as a fence-mender. He has won kudos for successfully overseeing a warming of ties with long-time rival Taiwan as head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office.
Added into this mix is Cui Tiankai, a deputy foreign minister who is tipped to become the new ambassador to the United States, someone who can be just as confrontational as Yang but who is also well thought-of in Washington.
"China does not want trouble. There are too many issues to deal with at home," said Ruan at the China Institute of International Studies.
However, there are still no foreign policy experts in the Politburo, China's elite decision-making body, signaling diplomacy will continue to take a back seat to domestic issues.
And China has show few signs of wanting to assume a bigger international role commensurate with its growing position in the world.
"In terms of comprehensive national strength, China is now number two in the world," widely-read tabloid the Global Times, published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said on Tuesday.
"China needs an even greater diplomatic strategy ... which must be to suit our national situation and not copy the experience of other great powers."
For instance, China imports around half of its oil from the Middle East, but it only plays a minor role in addressing crises like Syria or the on-going Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The role of protecting the Gulf oil fields and key shipping lanes still essentially falls to the world's global policeman, the United States.
"I do not see ... any stomach for doing anything in the Middle East," said David Schneyer, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"I don't know if that's going to be sustainable or if there are going to be pressures on China, as a growing world power and economic power, to become more involved in the region. But I would think over time there will be. But there's certainly very little interest in doing so."
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim, Sally Huang and Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)