China announced the replacement of Foreign Minister Huang Hua and Defense Minister Geng Biao today.
Although Huang had just returned from Moscow, where he conferred with his Soviet counterpart in the highest-level meeting between the two Communist powers in 13 years, analysts found no policy significance in today's shifts.
Tonight, Premier Zhao Ziyang moved to dampen speculation of an early realignment in Peking's policy, declaring that Moscow must lift its security threat to China before expecting a fundamental normalization of relations.
Huang, 69, is said to be in poor health and had long been expected to step down after China's parliament opens next week. His replacement, Wu Xueqian, 60, is a close associate of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and became a deputy foreign minister last May.
Geng, 73, China's first civilian defense chief, reportedly was unpopular with military professionals and also had been expected to step aside. His replacement, Gen. Zhang Aiping, 72, is the Army's deputy chief of staff and the armed forces' director of science and technology.
Zhang is believed to have the backing of his military colleagues while sharing the progressive strategy of the modernizers now running China.
The changeover at the top of China's foreign policy apparatus comes at a time of shifting diplomatic priorities in Peking.
Just 18 months ago, China's leaders were discussing the possibility of a strategic partnership with the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union, which they then were describing as a threat to peace.
Now, the same Chinese leaders conspicuously keep their distance from Washington while softening their once rigid hostility toward the Kremlin. Last month, the two Communist powers held their first political talks since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The death of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev became an opportunity for China to sound even more conciliatory. Huang, the highest-ranking official sent to Moscow in 19 years, praised Brezhnev as "an all-around statesman," held 90 minutes of talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and called on the new Kremlin leadership to continue efforts to normalize Sino-Soviet relations.
But Huang is more closely associated with China's rapprochement with the United States. An English speaker who once served as translator for the American writer Edgar Snow, he was the foreign minister when Peking and Washington normalized relations in 1979 after 30 years of hostility.
[Huang also met in Moscow with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the State Department confirmed today. Spokesman John Hughes said Shultz and Huang talked for about 30 minutes, with Vice President George Bush also present for part of that time.]
Geng also played a role in the once burgeoning Sino-American relationship. In 1979, he led a Chinese defense delegation to Washington in what was seen as a sign of increasing strategic cooperation against Moscow.
While Peking's reaction to Brezhnev's passing signaled a further softening of its anti-Soviet stance, Premier Zhao used the occasion of a visit by Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond to reassert China's conditions for any substantive progress in healing the Sino-Soviet split.
Repeating Peking's old formula, Zhao said Moscow must remove three main obstacles standing in the way of better relations--the heavy buildup of its troops along the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia, its military occupation of Afghanistan and its support for Vietnamese forces in Cambodia.
Zhao criticized both Moscow and Washington for "hegemonism" -- a pejorative term for domineering behavior -- but singled out the Kremlin for "expansionism."
On China's relations with the United States, the premier said differences go beyond the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the controversy that brought bilateral ties to the breaking point before a joint communique was issued in August.
"China attaches importance to promoting Sino-American relations but is opposed to the U.S. hegemonistic acts in different parts of the world," China's official news agency quoted Zhao as saying.
"The two countries, while sharing interests in maintaining world peace and security, have major differences on the issue of Taiwan and other matters," he continued.
Although Huang and Geng step aside at a time of fast-paced diplomatic activity, their removal is believed to have more to do with domestic political considerations than foreign policy issues.
Wu, the new foreign minister, has made his career outside the foreign service, most recently as a party official in charge of liaison with Communist parties in other countries.
He has been groomed for months by party General Secretary Hu, who has been placing his political allies in important posts. The two men began their long friendship as officials of the Communist Youth League.
Huang had held his post since 1976. He also holds the title of state councilor, but despite his high positions wielded little real power as a policy formulator.
Officials of the state apparatus, such as foreign and defense ministers, primarily execute policy for the powerful policy makers at the top of the Communist Party hierarchy.
Zhang, the new defense chief, has been chairman of the Scientific and Technological Commission for National Defense since 1975, reportedly supervising China's nuclear program among other projects. The recent test firing of a ballistic missile from a submarine was a significant breakthrough that is believed to have improved Zhang's political standing.
Outgoing defense minister Geng, an urbane official with a long series of diplomatic posts behind him, has been in a tenuous political position since he was dropped from the Politburo in September.