BRITAIN has offered to hand over the Prince of Wales Building - the centrepiece of its existing military headquarters - to the People's Liberation Army stationed in Hongkong in 1997, according to the Commander British Forces, Major-General John Foley. The British offer, made public for the first time, was described by mainland sources as ''a positive step'' towards a full settlement of the handover of existing military facilities to China. But the source said the Chinese side would only accept the transfer of the building if it was accompanied by the adjacent western part of the former HMS Tamar naval base. ''The Chinese side holds the view that the eastern part of Tamar has already been relocated [to Stonecutters Island]. The western part must be handed over together with the building,'' he said. Under the Central/Wan Chai reclamation plan, the basin to the east of the building would be filled in and released, together with the recreation area to the west, for civilian development. The source said the Chinese side was keen to turn the building and the areas that surround it into the future headquarters of the PLA. General Foley said in an interview with Asia Television last night that the Prince of Wales Building was one of the military facilities that would go to the PLA ''in due course''. He did not give further details, but added that the fate of the western part of the existing headquarters was still under discussion by the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group. A deputy chief of general staff of the PLA, Xu Huizi, hinted earlier this month in Beijing that the Chinese side planned to set up PLA headquarters at the site of the British Garrison's headquarters. A source said: ''The British side had been unwilling to hand over the building and the western part of Tamar to China in the past. At least it has made a step forward publicly. But that's not enough.'' The source maintained that the Chinese Government would not agree to the handover arrangements if the western part was to revert to another use. A mainland official said he would not speculate on whether the British refusal to include the western part was a deliberate move to try to limit the presence of Chinese troops in urban areas. But according to a source, China's intention of building its PLA headquarters on the Wan Chai waterfront ''would not be changed''. ''Of course, it is a demonstration of sovereignty. But there is also a practical need to station troops in central areas to provide emergency services whenever necessary,'' the source said. Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, the Hongkong co-convenor of the security sub-group of the Special Administrative Region Preparatory Committee's Preliminary Working Committee (PWC), said the sensitive issue of troop deployment must be handled carefully. ''We have reflected our views during the first meeting of the PWC and, as far as I'm concerned, China will be making the necessary arrangement to prevent [the causing of annoyance],'' she said. Mrs Fan said the PLA troops in Hongkong should maintain a low profile. They should not appear in their uniform in business centres like Tsim Sha Tsui and Central. James To Kun-sun, the United Democrats' spokesman on security affairs, said the two countries should be careful not to treat the matter in a piece-meal manner. ''I think we have to look into the overall security needs of Hongkong, rather than focusing on one building or one particular piece of land,'' he said.