UK moves to repair China ties

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 1994, 12:00am

BRITAIN and China will next month take a major step towards putting the political reform row behind them, with a surprise visit to Beijing by Foreign Office Minister Alastair Goodlad.

A Foreign Office spokesman last night revealed that Mr Goodlad, the British minister with special responsibility for Hong Kong affairs, had accepted an invitation from the Chinese Foreign Ministry to visit the mainland in July.

However Mr Goodlad last night refused to discuss the trip saying only that ''nothing has yet been finalised''.

The ice-breaking visit will be the first by a Foreign Office minister since Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd's trip to Beijing last July.

A spokesman said it was expected to last ''five or six days''. There are no plans yet for a stopover in Hong Kong, although one might later be arranged.

''There is an agreement in principle that the visit will take place but the precise details and dates are still being worked out,'' the spokesman said.

The visit will come shortly after the crucial June 29 vote in the Legislative Council on Governor Chris Patten's political reform proposals, which is widely expected to mark the end of the two-year-long controversy over arrangements for the 1994-95 polls.

Mr Goodlad's visit is seen as a clear signal that Britain and China want to move rapidly to repair their currently-strained relations.

A Foreign Office spokesman said Hong Kong matters would be discussed during the visit. But he cautioned they were not the primary purpose for the trip.

''He won't be going to Beijing to negotiate on Hong Kong issues although naturally they will be covered during his visit,'' the source said.

''The minister will wish to focus on areas where Britain and China can work more closely together. He will want to discuss wider bilateral relations and regional issues.'' These are expected to include the Korean nuclear crisis. Britain, along with other Western nations, is anxious to urge Beijing to use its influence with Pyongyang to bring about a peaceful resolution of the issue.

It has not yet been decided who Mr Goodlad will meet in Beijing. But his most likely host would be Vice-Foreign Minister Jiang Enzhu, leader of the Chinese team during last year's 17 rounds of unsuccessful negotiations on political reform. Mr Jiang has previously been received in London by Mr Goodlad.

Among those expected to accompany the minister on the trip will be Foreign Office Assistant Under-Secretary of State for North Asia, Christopher Hum, the British team leader during the final two rounds of political reform talks.

Mr Goodlad, who was appointed minister with special responsibility for Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, Australasia, and the Pacific after the general election in April 1992, is known to have been pushing within the Foreign Office for some time to arrange a visit to Beijing. China is one of the few major countries within his area of responsibility which he has yet to visit as minister.

He also has responsibility for the trade promotion policies of the Foreign Office.

But it is understood outgoing British Ambassador to Beijing Sir Robin McLaren played a leading role in arranging the ice-breaking visit. Sir Robin, a veteran sinologist, is known to be anxious to try to get Sino-British relations back on track before he retires in August, and has been privately submitting suggestions about how to break the present deadlock.

A visit by Mr Goodlad, who was not a central figure in the political reform row, is seen as an astute means of Britain taking the initiative to repair ruptured relations, since it circumvents Chinese objections of dealing directly with Mr Patten.

It also avoids the protocol problems that have so far made it impossible to arrange any early session between Mr Hurd and his Chinese counterpart Qian Qichen, despite the airport accord's provision that they should meet twice a year.

British diplomats say that, since Mr Hurd visited Beijing last July, Mr Qian should come to Europe for the next session.

However, China is reluctant to agree to this, and the two are not now expected to meet until the United Nations General Assembly in late September or early October.

Mr Qian has already said he would be prepared to meet Mr Hurd there.