THE predominantly British ownership of Hongkong Telecom could diminish Hongkong's role as an electronics gateway to China, a leading telecommunications academic argued yesterday. However, he admitted this was ''a difficult and sensitive issue''. Mr Milton Mueller, of the Department of Communication at Rutgers University in the US, said that after 1997 Hongkong's network could either be quarantined from the mainland, where foreign ownership was prohibited, or integrated into it. Both the Hongkong Special Administrative Region and China would benefit more from integration, in which Hongkong could help update China's telecommunications in the same way as it was updating finance and manufacturing. But he added: ''Hongkong Telecom's status as a predominantly British-owned corporation not only conflicts with China's concerns about foreign involvement in infrastructure, but also makes moves towards market integration after 1997 more problematic.'' Hongkong Telecom is 58 per cent owned by Cable & Wireless of Britain. China-controlled CITIC Pacific owns 20 per cent. He said the future administration might be forced to find a way of changing ownership of Hongkong Telecom, C & W's biggest source of profits, without damaging C & W's legitimate interests. He said it was not clear whether after 1997 Hongkong investment in China's networks would be considered domestic or foreign. Mr Mueller's study of Hongkong Telecom's monopoly on international calls caused a furore in 1991. He is currently studying telecommunications in Hongkong, China and Taiwan with funding from the territory and the US. He was speaking at a conference organised by the Hongkong Centre for Economic Research. Mr Mueller added that Hongkong should develop ties with players in China's telecommunications sector other than the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, notably users and other ministries, and lobby them to end the telecoms ministry's monopoly. ''Monopolies are broken or relaxed by external pressure, not by persuading the monopolist,'' he argued. However, Professor Di Angzhao, assistant director of Beijing's National Research Centre for Science and Technology Development, told the conference that networks were ''a basic industry that has overall and precursory effects on the development of the national economy'' and must therefore be state-run. Because the networks of both Taiwan and China are state-owned, direct connection is impossible because of the ban on government links across the Taiwan Strait.