|Chinese vice foreign minister Zang Zhijun recently took over as the foreign ministry's Communist Party secretary [EPA]
China has replaced its top foreign ministry official amid a trend toward greater assertiveness in handling territorial disputes and participating in global organisations.
Zhang Zhijun, the vice foreign minister, took over recently as the foreign ministry's Communist Party secretary, state media reports said on Wednesday, meaning he now outranks Yang Jiechi, the current foreign minister.
Yang was accused of being caught off guard when Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, announced at a security conference in Vietnam this year that Washington considered the peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes as part of the American national interest.
Zhang, 57, had served almost his entire career in the party's International Liaison Department, a type of shadow foreign ministry focusing on contacts with foreign political parties, until he became deputy to Yang last year.
That party background may mean he has more of a say in policymaking than his predecessor, as China increasingly abandons its former low-key approach to dealing with the outside world.
The country's rising economic clout amid the global economic downturn has emboldened Chinese leaders to demand a bigger say in global affairs such as climate change and at international organisations, including the UN.
China's aggressive assertion of its territorial claims in the South China and East China seas have, meanwhile, sparked a backlash from other countries in the region, drawing them closer to Washington.
The powerful People's Liberation Army is believed to be leading the calls for a tougher line in such disputes, while other cabinet officials have emphasised quietly advancing China's interests in economic, media and cultural spheres.
Dai Bingguo, the state counsellor and China's most senior diplomat, is seen as balancing the different arguments, although the country's opaque political system ensures that such debates almost never make it into the public arena.
Little is known about Zhang's personal style, although his party background and relative lack of experience working abroad suggest he will closely reflect the tone set by the party leadership.
Zhang's appointment was announced on official websites, including that of the party's People's Daily newspaper, but no exact date was given.