A mainland carrier may not be ready to join Star Alliance until 2005, according to Lufthansa chairman and chief executive Jurgen Weber. Having secured Singapore Airlines to cover the Southeast Asian market, Star - the world's biggest airline alliance - was now nearing its optimal size, Mr Weber told Orient Aviation. The two holes left in its global network were India and the mainland, he said. Securing a mainland partner has become the top priority of the global alliance, with the mainland's World Trade Organisation membership imminent, and air-travel market there forecast to grow faster than any other. Air China has been widely tipped as most likely to join Star. The carrier has a 60 per cent joint-venture partner with Lufthansa Technik in the Beijing-based Aircraft Maintenance and Engineering Corporation. There have been reports that Air China applied for and received regulatory approval from authorities to join a global alliance. According to some analysts the world's second-biggest alliance, oneworld, has its sights set on China Eastern. Recent news that Beijing was planning to relax the upper limit of foreign shareholdings in mainland airlines has revived Cathay Pacific's hopes of purchasing a minority stake in China Eastern. A source close to China Eastern said Cathay, a founding member of oneworld, was keen to acquire a minority holding in the Shanghai-based carrier. However, China Eastern's management have been divided over the Cathay offer. 'The junior guys are keen but senior management have shown some resistance,' the source said. If Cathay gained a minority stake in China Eastern, 'it would lock in a code-sharing relationship', Mark Webb, regional aviation analyst at HSBC Securities Asia, said. 'It would also lock China Eastern in to oneworld,' he added. Foreign ownership of mainland airlines is restricted to 35 per cent. This restriction had precluded the possibility of accepting Cathay's offer, China Eastern's president Li Zhongming said in April.