A flurry of top-level political exchanges, trade missions and multi-million-dollar joint-venture contracts have signalled the end of strained diplomatic relations between the Netherlands and China. The dawn of a co-operative new era will also bring economic benefits to Hong Kong. Frosty relations, created last year by the Netherlands' stance on human rights on the mainland, have significantly warmed. The ice was broken when former Chinese premier Li Peng, accepted an invitation to visit the Netherlands two months ago. During the high-profile trip, he approved Royal Dutch/Shell's plans for a giant petrochemical plant in Guangdong, the biggest mainland joint venture by a foreign conglomerate. His signature on the US$4.5-billion contract was viewed as a fence-mending indication that the Netherlands' traditionally strong ties with China were back on track. Only days later, the signal that political wounds had well and truly healed was underlined when a 70-strong trade mission was led to China by the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs, Dr Hans Wijers. The mission had been cancelled last year but business leaders on the largest Dutch delegation to the mainland were left in no doubt that the visit had been worth the wait. Acknowledging the Netherlands' historic expertise at waterway management - from keeping the North Sea at bay to masterminding transport systems on the mighty River Rhine - China invited the Dutch to help upgrade and develop river transport on the Yangtze. 'Our experience in this field is enormous and improving transport on the Yangtze will significantly aid development of the river's hinterland,' Jochum Haakma, newly appointed Consul- General for the Netherlands in Hong Kong, said. Dr Wijers opened a new Netherlands consulate-general in Guangzhou, while half the delegates concluded business deals on the spot worth US$250 million. Philips won a US$17 million contract with China's Jiangsu province to modernise around 80 hospitals and sold US$6 million worth of technically-advanced equipment to two prestigious hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai. The Dutch company also led a successful US$38 million consortium bid to modernise and extend Chengdu Airport - and provide traffic control systems worth US$50 million in 12 Chinese cities. In the meantime, Rabobank was given the long-awaited go-ahead to open for business in Shanghai. All of which is welcome news for the 2,700 Dutch business community in the SAR, who not only have an enormous investment stake in Hong Kong but control many of the Netherlands' ventures across the border. 'Most economists agree that, within 10 or 15 years, China will be the second biggest economy in the world, perhaps even the biggest, so we obviously have an enormous interest,' Mr Haakma said. 'I get the impression that the Netherlands' position here is a bit under-estimated.' The Netherlands, for example, is the fifth biggest foreign investor in the SAR's manufacturing sector - behind only Japan, the United States, the mainland and Britain. Dutch investments worth a total of US$280 million in 11 factories provide over 5,500 jobs. Philips Electronics alone employs 25,000 at 24 factories in the mainland and the SAR. No fewer than 250 Dutch companies operate in Hong Kong, 48 of them based to oversee regional business and another 30 with regional headquarters here. As Prime Minister Wim Kok has noted: 'In business, we have a lot in common. Our business people share an outward-looking attitude and an entrepreneurial spirit. Hong Kong and the Netherlands also share the role of gateway to a large hinterland: Hong Kong to China, the Netherlands to Europe.' Like Hong Kong, the Netherlands is a service industry-oriented economy, accounting for 70 per cent of GDP. 'These similarities have led to close co-operation in investment and trade,' Mr Kok said.