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There's still a job to do here

TWO years ago it was the blood and shrapnel of conflict in the Gulf. Today, Brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck's working life revolves around administrative headaches, diplomacy and political sensitivity in Hongkong.

As Chief of Staff for British Forces Hongkong, he has charge of a ?160 million budget, is involved in the detailed planning of the pre-1997 draw-down of the territory's garrison and has responsibilities for the other traces of British Forces in the Far East.

He is also acutely aware of the fact that here be Winged Dragons. Last year, the army found itself drawn into the turmoil of worsening Sino-British relations when it revealed plans to stage a military exercise, codename Winged Dragon, in the territory - a plan which provided for a military response to border incursions.

Winged Dragon was abruptly postponed, almost certainly because of an outcry from Hongkong legislators who claimed it would further fray our relationship with China.

This week, six months after his arrival in Hongkong, Brigadier Hammerbeck pointedly defended the army's decision to stage exercises.

''The fact that we practise things around the world doesn't mean we see them happening in any particular place,'' he said, choosing his words carefully.

''This is very low key and is only made high key, with respect, by people like yourself (the media). And unless you practise you will end up with Singapores,'' he continued, referring to the current controversy over the World War II collapse of Singapore.

Brigadier Hammerbeck stressed that the British Army staged exercises around the world, all geared towards different situations in different countries, and not necessarily applicable to the location for each exercise. In other words, an exercise staged inHongkong may not necessarily represent the army's projection of what may occur here.

''That is why we feel it is important that we do conduct exercises, not in any way to react to what we think of what may or may not happen north of the border,'' he said.

''I don't for a minute think anything will happen north of the border but nevertheless we are soldiers. We are an insurance policy and from time to time you inspect your insurance policy.

''In the same way, I believe the people of Hongkong would expect me and the CBF (Commander British Forces) to ensure that they are getting value for money in their insurance policy. As indeed would the Chinese.

''At the end of the day, it's not about us trying to repel the Chinese from coming swarming across the border because there's no way that we could do that, but at the same time I think you will find there is a perception in China that would look at Hongkong and say 'are there competent military forces in Hongkong which contribute to the confidence and stability in Hongkong?'.

''That's what we are here for. Fail to do that in the four years, the run up, and then the Chinese will say to themselves 'well, perhaps the British aren't hacking it. They are not fulfilling their end of the bargain'. ''