VISITING HONG KONG last month, Finnish Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Paula Lehtomaki urged local business leaders to pay attention to the growing environmental problems emerging in the mainland. Ms Lehtomaki's visit to Hong Kong brought to a close an eight-day tour of China to launch a three-year trade promotion initiative called Experience Finland, and to promote ecological issues. While she saw environmental damage as the price of China's development, Ms Lehtomaki said she still had cause for hope. 'What is positive is that the Chinese authorities are willing to allocate significant resources to correct the situation,' she said. The trade minister was joined by the country's largest business delegation to China. In Beijing, at the beginning of her tour, Ms Lehtomaki signed a new trade agreement with Vice-Minister of Commerce Zhang Zhigang. The accord - which covers the reciprocal promotion and protection of investments - replaces an earlier agreement signed in 1984. Negotiations on the replacement document began in 1999, and a mutually acceptable document was finally drawn up in October last year. At the Beijing meeting, Mr Zhang stressed the importance of free trade principles and called on Finland to help persuade the European Union to recognise China as a full market economy. The need for a new agreement had grown all the more pressing since China's entry into the World Trade Organisation, which had changed the lie of the playing field. Ms Lehtomaki is a firm believer in the benefits free trade brings. 'Rule-based trade liberalisation has built welfare and enhanced competitiveness in Finland. Our positive experience of trade liberalisation is certainly not unique. Benefits of open trade policies have been constantly proven by economic studies,' Ms Lehtomaki said in her speech to the WTO's fifth ministerial conference in Mexico last year. 'Trade creates wealth to invest in education, health and infrastructure, based on national policies. It also provides means to fight hunger and poverty in accordance with our common commitments.' A world leader in information technology and other hi-tech fields, Finland is keen to get a solid foothold in China, where demand in this sector continues to grow exponentially. The new agreement consolidates the country's position and puts it in place to take advantage of growth in the mainland. China is already one of Finland's main trading partners - last year becoming its largest in Asia and ninth worldwide. Finnish investments in the mainland total about Euro4 billion ($41.4 billion), and more than 200 Finnish companies have operations there, 50 of which run factories in China. Finland is also China's main trading partner among the Nordic countries. The country's exports to Hong Kong, by contrast, have been gradually declining over the past few years. According to figures from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC), they dipped to $3.45 billion last year and totalled $2.3 billion between January and September this year. These are 3.4 per cent and 13 per cent declines, respectively, on preceding years. But Finland has been an increasingly important market for Hong Kong goods. The TDC's figures show local exports to Finland were worth $4.11 billion last year, an increase of 45.6 per cent over the preceding year. Exports during the first nine months of this year have surpassed that total, reaching $4.84 billion. That marks a 66.4 per cent increase over the same period last year. Despite Finnish industry's major presence in China, the government of the Scandinavian country fears its companies may be missing out on the mainland's biggest boom region. Ms Lehtomaki said many Finnish companies tended to focus on opportunities in Beijing and Shanghai but were less aware of the extent of the development on the southern coastline. Towards the end of her China visit, the trade minister passed through Guangzhou, where she inaugurated a new Finnish consulate. The office, which is scheduled to begin normal operations next year, will provide greater support for Finnish companies that want to do business in Guangdong. In Hong Kong, the trade minister and her delegation were the guests of the Finnish Business Council. Established in 1985, the council was created to enhance cultural and corporate ties between Finland and Hong Kong. As well as promoting business, the council helps provide a focus for the 300 or so Finns living and working in Hong Kong.