BEIJING -- The Chinese military, once shunned and scorned for its role in massacring unarmed civilian demonstrators, is rapidly developing a new reputation: that of potent military power in East Asia and political kingmaker at home.
Its hard-fought return from international isolation will achieve some respect today when U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry begins a four-day visit to Beijing, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. defense official to visit China since the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989.
"It's part of easing the blight of Tiananmen," said June Teufel Dreyer, a specialist on the Chinese military at the University of Miami.
fTC Government sources say Mr. Perry does not expect any substantial agreements from this trip. For example, few observers think China will reward Mr. Perry for his visit by signing international treaties limiting the spread of nuclear arms or ballistic missiles -- goals that successive U.S. administrations have been pursuing with little success.
And unlike Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's visit in August, when U.S. companies signed billions of dollars worth of contracts, this trip is unlikely to help U.S. business.
But analysts and diplomats believe that Mr. Perry's visit could be just as important, signaling U.S. recognition that China is rapidly becoming a regional superpower -- with or without agreements on missiles, nuclear weapons and human rights.
Until now, the Clinton foreign policy team had followed the Bush administration's ban on high-level military contacts with the People's Liberation Army. Mr. Perry's visit marks the formal end of that ban.
"The overall goal is to have a more open atmosphere. It was a big mistake to cut off a dialogue with the military, which is a big player in China's decision-making process," says Bonnie Glasier, free-lance consultant who advised the Clinton administration on Mr. Perry's trip.
In many ways, this has become the new foreign policy orthodoxy: China is too big and its market too lucrative for the United States to punish it for bad behavior at home and abroad. Instead, diplomatic and trade contacts should be encouraged in the hopes that contact with the West will change China into something more palatable.
Yet many Asian countries are nervous about the latest U.S. move to engage China.
An Asian diplomat based in Beijing complained: "The Chinese are sending ships on regular patrols into disputed waters, they just conducted a nuclear test and are simply making a lot of people nervous. So the Americans give them a reward by sending over a Cabinet minister. It's confusing."
For many in the Chinese military, it may simply be further proof that China is destined to be the strongest military player in East Asia.
An internal Chinese military document obtained by The Sun, for example, painted a picture of a new world order in which China will fill at least a regional military vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union and U.S. defense cutbacks.
"The future holds great potential for the People's Liberation Army if it develops into a modern fighting force," the document stated. "Unlike in previous years, the pullback of the two former superpowers and the economic strength resulting from reforms give China a unique opportunity."
Up until the 1980s, the South China Sea was patrolled by Soviet ships based in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and by U.S. warships based in Subic Bay in the Philippines. Now, both bases are under local control and the superpowers gone.
Meanwhile, China's economy has been growing at a tremendous clip and with it the defense budget, which has soared 60 percent since 1988.
Buoyed by strong financial support, the oft-neglected navy of the People's Liberation Army has been one of the biggest beneficiaries, methodically building a presence on the Parcel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The actions are making good on China's old claim to control all the waters from Hong Kong in the north to Brunei in the south and from Vietnam in the west to the Philippine coastline in the east -- an area that includes vast mineral deposits, oil and gas reserves, as well as vital shipping lanes.
Even more far-flung are recent patrols off the coast of Myanmar ** (formerly Burma), an international pariah that China has befriended and lavished with military and civilian aid.
One proposed project: refurbish an old British naval base near Bangladesh for both countries' use.
China's interest in the area was underscored last month, when an Indian warship stopped a Chinese trawler in Indian territorial waters near Myanmar and seized sophisticated naval charts of the region.
While military analysts believe that these blue-water forays are hardly sustainable, given China's coastal navy, they are being taken seriously enough by local countries. India and Indonesia, for example, recently announced joint military exercises.
And even if China's maritime ambitions are a bit premature, they may point to a future strategy that will be pursued when China's economy is a bit bigger and if it can acquire sophisticated technology to build aircraft carriers and advanced fighters, the sort of weapons needed to project power overseas.
Analysts say China is interested in U.S. products, but the U.S. government barred companies from selling high technology to China after Tiananmen. Mr. Perry is unlikely to lift this ban during his trip this week, and China hardly expects him to, said Ms. Glasier, the government consultant.
Of more immediate importance for the United States is re-establishing some of the rapport that existed between the two military establishments before the Tiananmen massacre. Back then, both countries considered the Soviet Union their top threat and didn't view each other as serious military rivals in East Asia.
Now, with each side eyeing the other more suspiciously, any long-term dialogue that results from Mr. Perry's trip is likely to be strained.
But Clinton administration officials believe that contacts are especially important because China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, is believed to be near death. The military has recently come to occupy key positions in the Communist Party hierarchy -- the sort of domestic power that the generals have not wielded since the death of Mr. Deng's predecessor, Mao Tse-tung, in 1976.
"They hold the key to the near- and mid-term stability in China," said Zhang Weiguo, an author and analyst with TRI Inc. "It's in the U.S. interest to have contacts with them -- people-to-people contacts -- even if they aren't as warm contacts as they once were."