Shortly before the handover, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid homage to the uncanny foresight of a 12th Century Chinese poet who imagined Hong Kong ablaze 'with a host of stars in the deep night and a multitude of ships passing to and fro within the harbour'. She expressed the belief that, with Britain bowing out, US interest in what she described as 'this vital and astonishing centre of global commerce', had stepped up a gear. Acknowledging that 'no nation will play a larger role in shaping the course of 21st Century Asia than China', Mrs Albright believed the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region remained the key. Her attendance at the handover 'underlined American support for the continuation of HKSAR's current way of life and freedoms'. Mrs Albright subsequently stressed 'America's continued involvement in protecting our interests and supporting Hong Kong's people as they enter the Chinese nation'. Many believe this heightened US concern is understandable. As President Bill Clinton's close adviser on the SAR, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Jeffrey Bader, noted: 'Its future stability and continued prosperity are important not just to China but to the world community, including the United States.' The US is both Hong Kong's second biggest trading partner and investor after China, according to the Hong Trade Development Council. Two-way trade, up another nine per cent so far this year, tops US$50 billion, while US companies have almost US$14 billion invested here. More than a quarter of all local manufacturing is American-funded with 87 factories and more than 1,000 US firms employing 250,000 Hong Kong workers - almost 10 per cent of the workforce. There are also 36,000 US citizens living here. Nearly 180,000 business and tourist visas were issued to Hong Kong residents last year, while over 700,000 US citizens reciprocated with visits. 'We have a significant stake in promoting economic and business relationships, preserving civil liberties and the rule of law, maintaining a co-operative law enforcement relationship, and preserving access to Hong Kong as a routine and frequent port of call for Navy ships,' Mr Bader said. This breadth of activity and interests is maintained in Hong Kong by one of the largest US missions in Asia. Despite occasional spats, the US focuses on the blossoming ties with China and the Hong Kong SAR. 'Our interests are served by an Asia that is coming together, not splitting apart - and by a China that is neither threatening nor threatened,' Mrs Albright said. 'What we see in Asia today is not a clash of civilisations, but a test of civilisation.' What the world often overlooked, she continued, was that 'ties between the American and Chinese people are deepening at every level'. 'From the Bay Area to Beijing, from New York to Shanghai, we are visiting each other, studying with each other, doing business with each other, philosophising with each other and learning from each other. 'It is our peoples, even more than our governments, that are bringing the old era of mutual isolation and miscommunication to a decisive and irreversible end. 'For America, the strategic benefits of our official dialogue with China are tangible, clear and growing. We are not yet where we want to be . . . but the direction we must go is clear,' she said. What of the future? Like Mrs Albright, Mr Bader is reluctant to make predictions. 'The reality is that Hong Kong's transition is a work in progress that will play out over many years,' he said. 'We look forward to working closely with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and expect he will take seriously his position to preserve Hong Kong's way of life and high degree of autonomy. 'We believe Hong Kong's best interests are served by faithful attention to the commitments in the Joint Declaration. The international community . . . is watching and expecting this to happen.'