Photo/IllutrationChinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua, left, and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, who will replace Cheng. (Asahi Shimbun file photos)

BEIJING--Reflecting Beijing's efforts to further stabilize improving bilateral ties, China will replace its ambassador to Japan of nearly a decade with a vice foreign minister with long diplomatic experience in Japan.

Kong Xuanyou, who has served on the Chinese diplomatic mission in Japan for about 15 years, will replace Cheng Yonghua, who is expected to leave Japan in early May, a diplomatic source said April 3.

Cheng, 64, has been in his post since 2010, becoming the longest-serving ambassador from China to Japan.

Kong, 59, has emerged as a key player in bilateral relations in recent years as Tokyo and Beijing worked to patch up their soured relations stemming from a long-running territorial dispute.

He led the Chinese delegation when the two countries held a dialogue on defense in Beijing in February.

“He has long work experience in Japan and is well-versed in Japanese affairs,” said a Japanese government official.

Chinese authorities have embarked on procedures to have Kong's appointment approved by the Japanese government, the source said.

Kong, of Korean descent, hails from Heilongjiang province in northern China and majored in Japanese at Shanghai International Studies University.

After joining the Chinese Foreign Ministry, he worked as the minister at the Chinese Embassy in Japan from 2005 to 2011.

Kong also served as China’s ambassador to Vietnam and director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Asian Affairs before being promoted to vice foreign minister in 2017.

When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan in May last year, Kong accompanied him.

He also served as special representative of the Chinese government for six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

As Kong assumed wide-ranging responsibilities, overseeing China’s relations with Russia, as well as with other Asian countries, it was apparently difficult for Beijing to transfer him to a new post.

But the Chinese government has begun working on a personnel reshuffle as his current responsibility has a certain closure after an international conference on the Belt and Road Initiative, to be held later this month. The initiative is China’s ambitious project to revive and extend the Silk Road routes through new railways, ports and other infrastructure.

The possibility of Beijing having Cheng stay on as ambassador to Japan until Osaka hosts the Group of 20 countries in June, in which Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to attend, had been floated.

But Beijing decided to replace Cheng in view of the fact that Kong turns 60 in July and other considerations.

Cheng’s tenure as ambassador to Japan was marked by a turbulent time following the Japanese government’s purchase in 2012 of disputed islands in the East China Sea to turn them into state property.

The islets, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.

Cheng's job required him to convey China’s tough stance on the dispute to Japanese officials.

Still, he is credited for helping repair the two countries’ ties by tapping into the expansive network of Japanese business leaders.

“Cheng remained unruffled and engaged in talks even though many of those who are known to be knowledgeable about Japan began Japan bashing as soon as Japan-China relations deteriorated,” said a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official who had worked at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing.