Diplomatic two-step

IN the time-honoured diplomatic tradition, officials involved in tentative British and Chinese contacts over Hongkong's constitutional reforms are doing their best to prevent the general public from glimpsing their true positions.

The Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung, continued the obfuscation process yesterday with his comments on the Government's intention of gazetting the constitutional reform bills ''as soon as possible''. His statement, that if the Government were to delay beyond the end of the month it would be for good reasons which were well understood by the Legislative Council, was widely seen as a thinly-veiled ultimatum to China, an interpretation quickly denied by the Governor, Mr Chris Patten. Far from being a firm commitment to gazette the bills tomorrow if China failed to respond in the next 24 hours, it left the way open for further weeks of camouflaged moves.

Mr Sze confirmed the Executive Council had delayed publication to avoid complicating diplomatic contacts with China, but did not say whether its conciliatory gesture had made any apparent difference to the Chinese position.

Further delay can easily be construed as weakness and indecision, indicative of a Government anxiously seeking compromise. The awkward choice is to wait for China to respond to British overtures, or to go ahead with gazetting the bills, which will be presented as a slap in the face for China. If indeed there are moderate voices in Beijing arguing for a positive response to Britain's more flexible stance, on the basis that it would be far better than settling for four years of non-convergence and cool relations, their position will be undermined. However, if China's real purpose is not to negotiate, but to stall for time and prevent the bills from being tabled in the Legislative Council, then a further hold-up will be futile, even counter-productive.

There is a fine line between withholding the bills indefinitely, and withdrawing the Governor's reform proposals altogether. The longer the bills are put back to entice the Chinese to the negotiating table, the more it begins to look as though Chinese preconditions for the talks have been met. China will have won a significant public relations victory, and given nothing in return if the talks end in disagreement. It will simply set new conditions, and weaken Mr Patten's position.

The Chinese may calculate that Mr Patten cannot feel entirely confident the support he has so far enjoyed from the British Government is as unshakeable as it once appeared. The series of embarrassing U-turns over the past six months made by Mr John Majorand his Cabinet has created an atmosphere of doubt about his leadership, to the extent that no policy appears to be fireproof. Dogged by reports that his Conservative Party helped the Bush campaign in last year's Presidential elections, Mr Major went into his first meeting with President Bill Clinton yesterday amidst concern that America's most trusted ally has lost some of its favoured status in the White House.

If the two men touched on Hongkong and China at all, it is probable that a prospective visit to Washington by Mr Patten will have been discussed, although Mr Major was at pains to point out earlier this week that there is no intention by Britain to internationalise the democracy issue. US Government intervention could prove to be a double-edged sword for Hongkong, because Mr Clinton is just as likely to attach conditions to the renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation status as to come out with supportiveremarks about Mr Patten's reform plans.