THE TRANSITION AS the clock ticks away to 1997, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and his British counterparts have managed to draw up a new road map for a smooth transfer of the territory. In a show of pragmatic diplomacy, leaders from the two sovereign powers have agreed to focus on practical business in light of their shared interests - both over Hong Kong and in the international arena. These ranged through a stable civil service, seamless handover of power between China's takeover body (the Preparatory Committee) and the Government, an honourable exit for Britain and entry of China on July 1, 1997, and an early go-ahead for money-making plans to develop the container ports. Almost three years after Governor Chris Patten announced his political reform blueprint, the two sides now seem to agree that no one will benefit further from continued political bickering. With about 600 days to go until the handover, time is running short for decent preparations for vital transitional arrangements. The powerful Preparatory Committee is to be officially launched in January. Any failure to remove the uncertainty over the working relationship between the present administration and the Preparatory Committee will cause doubts about a smooth transition, especially among foreign investors. More importantly, the Preparatory Committee will be construed as the second organ of power if it is not related to the Government. The authority of the administration would then be in jeopardy. Closer contacts between senior officials and their Chinese State Council counterparts will mark the first step in building mutual understanding. The move will help bolster the fragile confidence of senior-ranking officials over the change of their bosses - unless Beijing wants to use such contacts for political vetting. Early talks on the nature of the handover ceremony will not just save embarrassment to the departing colonial power. A grand and delightful celebration, rather than another 'go-it-alone' show by each side, will be seen by many here and overseas as a vote for a 'better Hong Kong'. The two sides have clearly agreed to disagree over the lifespan of the new Legislative Council. Mr Qian said they had not discussed the legislature because 'this is a question that has already been resolved'. China is still firm that the term of office of the three-tier structure will have to be 'terminated' by July 1, 1997. Britain seems to have resigned itself to the reality that the new Legco would have 'no authority and power' after the changeover. It remains to be seen, however, if a new period of Sino-British honeymoon has dawned since practical difficulties may emerge. For Britain, the remaining 600 days or so are yet to be declared trouble-free. Next on the agenda for Britain to raise with China, whether formally or behind closed doors, comes the question of the through-train of secretary-level officials and even the chief executive - as well as the position of Democratic Party legislators in the post-1997 legislature.