HONGKONG Telecom has put plans to move operator assistance services to China ''on the back burner'' because talks with the mainland have stalled, says finance director John Tonroe. ''Quite frankly, the discussions we had didn't come to any fruition,'' Mr Tonroe said yesterday, adding that it might take years to complete such a move. He said other countries with substantial Cantonese-speaking populations such as Malaysia and Vietnam were impractical bases for operator services, as links to Hongkong would be too expensive. Telecom sparked controversy last year by announcing that it wanted to set up offices handling functions such as directory enquiries across the border to control spiralling costs. Ironically, its high-capacity dedicated circuits to Guangdong have sparked interest by at least three Hongkong companies wanting to move clerical operations across the border. Even the Trade Development Council is using computer operators in China. The company, which has mainland-controlled CITIC Pacific as a 12 per cent shareholder, was unlikely to make an ''immediate breakthrough'' in its campaign to start operating services over the border, Mr Tonroe said. ''It could take years, and one has to be patient,'' he said. Hongkong Telecom appears to have been beaten by AT & T, the US telecommunications giant, which last month signed a co-operation agreement with China's State Planning Commission after strong lobbying by the US Government. In the meantime, Hongkong Telecom's largest shareholder, Cable & Wireless of the UK, might inject some minor assets into the region, Mr Tonroe said, making Hongkong Telecom a vehicle for C & W's Asian business. ''Hongkong Telecom is now seen as the vehicle for expansion possibilities in the Asian region,'' said Mr Tonroe. ''There are all sorts of possibilities.'' Any injections could be funded internally, so would not require a cash call. However, the Shenzhen telephone operations of C & W were ''not on the table'' for injection, he said. Hongkong Telecom was also intent on following other Hongkong businesses by expanding internationally away from the mainland, with Vietnam as a major priority. ''We are interested in areas where Hongkong business is interested. It [Vietnam] has a very under-developed phone system.'' He noted that the country had no modern international phone cables.