Li and Xi give peek into future leadership skills
Even though next year's leadership reshuffle is not finalised, the international community is eager to know how Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang will shape China's role on the global stage when they take over.
The two leaders have made speeches and overseas visits but still remain mysterious to other nations, especially when it comes to their views on international issues. It is a tradition for Chinese leaders to avoid revealing too much of their own personal style before they officially take over.
However, both Xi, who is expected to replace President Hu Jintao, and Li, who is expected to replace Premier Wen Jiabao, gave the world a glimpse of what to expect in August when Xi received his US counterpart, Vice-President Joe Biden, in China, and Li spoke at the University of Hong Kong.
In a rare and relatively unexpected gesture of goodwill, Xi accompanied Biden on most legs of his visit. From addressing a high-level trade forum to meetings with other senior Chinese leaders and touring Dujiangyan in Sichuan , Xi was frequently at Biden's side.
Before his trip, the US vice-president stressed that he wanted to build up personal ties with Xi. But some analysts remained sceptical about whether Xi would reveal much, and even suggested that he might take a tough stance, perhaps by pressing the US to improve its sluggish economy.
But he did not appear to make any such harsh remarks. Instead, US officials in Biden's delegation said they were impressed that Xi was 'very confident and assured'.
Analysts said Xi's approach showed China was being more assertive in foreign affairs, and they expected the new leadership to continue on that course.
'China is more confident now, when other countries are facing different kinds of problems,' said Sun Zhe, director of the Centre for US-China Relations at Tsinghua University. However it is anybody's guess as to whether the Li and Xi will bring about a major shift in China's foreign relations.
Xi, a member of the 'princelings' faction - as his father was among the first generation of modern China's leaders - is widely known for being pragmatic and for his openness with leaders of foreign countries. Former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew described Xi as a 'thoughtful man' who had undergone many trials and tribulations, but not allowed his sufferings to affect his judgment.
Former US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson described Xi as a person 'who knows how to get things over the goal line'.
But Xi has also shown that he is not one to shy away from strong nationalistic sentiments inside China, fuelling speculation about whether he will take a hardline stance on foreign affairs. He told the Chinese community in Mexico in 2009 that some 'well-fed' foreigners had nothing better to do than point fingers at China, but China would not cause the world any trouble.
But, on the whole, analysts do not expect a major shift in China's foreign affairs because Xi and Li are already members of the Politburo Standing Committee and have already been deeply involved in the foreign policy formulation process.
'There may be adjustments, but major changes are not expected,' said Professor Steve Tsang, who teaches contemporary Chinese studies at Nottingham University. Sun, from Tsinghua, added that before focusing on foreign relations, the new leadership might make more of an effort to tackle the internal problems resulting from China's rapid economic expansion.
Jia Qingguo, associate dean of Peking University's School of International Studies, said the international environment facing Xi and Li should be relatively stable, allowing them to continue the work of their predecessors.
But he added that the new leaders would try to diversify China's foreign relations and learn lessons from the recent turmoil in Libya.
'In the past China could turn a deaf ear to the happenings around the world, but that will be impossible now,' Jia said. 'China needs to consolidate its relationship with more countries and parties around the world to better protect its interests overseas.'
Another tricky issue the new leaders would face was the rise of emerging markets at a time when developed countries seemed to be declining, Jia said.
'Any mishandling will lead to conflicts between China and the big nations, such as the US,' he said.
China is expected to maintain its ties with Europe under the new leadership. It pledged to buy euro bonds and has given positive assessments to European economies.Li made his first major international appearance at the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he stressed China's commitment to sustainable development and to reducing the income gap, while warning against protectionism by saying, 'opening up can be both bilateral and multilateral ... in this sense, one plus one is, more often than not, bigger than two'.
Li also sought to play up his international outlook when visiting Hong Kong in August, where he announced a series of measures to promote the city's economic development and delivered a keynote speech at centenary celebrations at the University of Hong Kong.
Li praised the university for connecting the East and the West, and added that co-operation between Hong Kong and the mainland should be enhanced.
Despite the goodwill, controversy erupted during the Hong Kong visit, with journalists and protesters complaining about the heavy-handed security arrangements.
But Jia said he did not believe the controversy in Hong Kong was indicative of Li's working style.