Two rising stars in the Chinese foreign service have been appointed assistant foreign ministers as part of a reshuffle ahead of a key Communist Party congress next year.
The decision to promote former Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan and a top diplomat in charge of Middle East affairs, Zhai Jun, was made last week and announced on Tuesday.
Mr Zhai, 51, who was director of the Department of West Asian and North African Affairs from 2003 and a former ambassador to Libya, is seen in diplomatic circles as a seasoned expert in Middle East issues.
His promotion coincides with China's growing involvement in the Middle East and expanding trade ties with oil-rich Arab countries.
Mr Zhai rose to national prominence last year when he played a leading role in the diplomatic efforts that secured the release of eight Chinese workers taken hostage in Iraq.
Mr Zhai used to serve as a top Arabic interpreter for leaders, including Deng Xiaoping . He studied the language in Egypt in the mid-1970s.
He was marked as a rising star in the Chinese foreign service in 1997 when he was sent to Tripoli, Libya, as one of the country's youngest ambassadors. Mr Zhai is expected to take up the responsibilities of vice-minister Lu Guozeng to supervise West Asian, African and security-related affairs.
Mr Lu, 55, who was made a vice-minister in January, has been diagnosed with cancer and his medical condition is believed to be 'very serious', according to the sources.
The promotion of Mr Kong came as something of a surprise because he was appointed to head the ministry's European Affairs Department only early this year after having served about four years in arguably its most high-profile post.
The 50-year-old was deputy director of the then West European affairs department before he was named spokesman and head of the Information Department in late 2001, taking the place of Zhu Bangzao , another expert on francophone countries.
Mr Kong joined the ministry in 1977 and trained at the French National School of Public Administration between 1984 and 1985.
He worked as minister counsellor in the Chinese embassy in France when another former ministry spokesman, Wu Jianmin , was ambassador. He will be in charge of European and information affairs.
The promotions could be seen as a prelude to more high-level reshuffles at the ministry, diplomatic analysts said.
Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing , who will turn 66 in October, is expected to step down ahead of the 17th Communist Party Congress, which is scheduled for late next year.
However, Mr Li, who has been rumoured to step down ever since passing the retirement age of 65 for ministerial-level officials, is still at the centre of China's shuttle diplomacy around the world.
The next foreign minister is widely tipped to be Vice-Minister Yang Jiechi , a veteran expert in Sino-US relations.