li.bmpBig-name Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins has hired as partner a former marketing director of Merck & Co with expertise in Asia.

The appointment, first reported by VentureWire (sub required) this morning, is significant because the partner, James Li (see bio here), will be spending most of his time in China, another sign that Kleiner is taking the region more seriously. Not long ago, the firm has been skeptical of the worth of investing directly there, saying that the firm’s value is the depth of its local experience and relationships.

However, Kleiner has emphasized the need for its partners to travel there, and that’s exactly what Li will be doing. He’ll be based formally out of Kleiner’s Menlo Park office, but will spend most of his time in China. He’s just the latest in a string of new hires with experience in Asia (see here and here). Kleiner Perkins has also apparently partnered with Burrill & Co. – which recently established offices in Shanghai and Beijing — to evaluate investment opportunities in China, VentureWire reported. (Update: A source at Kleiner tells VentureBeat that there is no special investment relationship with Burrill; the firm has worked closely with the company for 15 years, but the VentureWire reference was a misunderstanding). VentureBeat reported a few days ago that Kleiner might be beefing up its China efforts.