Perry's China visit full of symbolism, not substance

October 16, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

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.

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