DESCRIBED variously as patrician, obstinate, thoughtful and overbearing, shipping magnate Dr Helmut Sohmen will dust off old political ties as he takes on his role as chairman of the new ICAC watchdog. The World-Wide Shipping group chairman has been content to stay on the political sidelines since stepping down as an appointed Legislative Councillor in 1988 to concentrate on business interests. Not afraid to speak his mind, the 54-year-old shipping baron is expected to bring a cool, clinical approach to his work as head of the new committee. His business nous should serve him well as he tries to balance the needs of the authorities in tackling corruption, while ensuring the level playing field that has allowed business to thrive so successfully is not jeopardised. Renowned as an arch conservative and once labelled a ''political dinosaur'', Dr Sohmen has spoken out many times on his faith in the Hong Kong ''economic miracle'' lasting beyond 1997 and has emphasised the need to maintain cordial relations with the mainland. The author of Legislative Interlude, Hong Kong's Road To 1997, published two years ago, Dr Sohmen rapped the Hong Kong media for being ''unashamedly biased and, by and large, producing political commentary or analysis of low quality.'' Dr Sohmen has often reacted with anger and concern to harsh words between Britain and China. In 1990, as general committee chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (HKGCC), Dr Sohmen took a feud between himself and HKGCC legislative representative Jimmy McGregor - also a member of the ICAC monitoring committee - to new heights by effectively excommunicating Mr McGregor from the body. He dissociated the chamber from its legislator, suggesting Mr McGregor was taking ''a confrontationalist attitude towards China''. Mr McGregor, in turn, accused Dr Sohmen of ''mud-slinging''. The feud between the pair and their supporters raged in the letters pages of the newspapers. Now that they are on the same committee, Mr McGregor and Dr Sohmen will be closely watched to see how they work together. A fierce advocate of close ties with China, Dr Sohmen was awarded Austria's Rosthorn Medal for outstanding contributions to the improvement of Austrian-Chinese relations in November 1993. The honour recognised his establishment of the Sohmen China Foundation and the Sohmen Far East Foundation. Dr Sohmen has also made moves toward expanding his business empire to include manufacturing and real estate interests on the mainland. Dr Sohmen is president of the Austrian-Chinese Friendship Society, chairman of the Hong Kong-Austrian Association, honorary president of the Baltic and International Maritime Council and chairman of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. He is also aformer chairman of the International Maritime Industries Forum in London and the Hong Kong Shipowners' Association. In his youth, Dr Sohmen studied law in Austria and the United States and gained a reputation as a civil rights supporter before being lured from a banking career in Canada by his father-in-law, the late Sir Yue-kong Pao. Last May saw Dr Sohmen speak as Hong Kong committee chairman of the Pacific Basin Economic Council (PBEC) at its 26th international general meeting in Seoul. He argued against grouping PBEC nations, which account for about 50 per cent of global production, into trade blocs and cited Hong Kong's free enterprise success story as an example. ''In a way, we are a model for what this organisation stands for: a free market, minimum government involvement, an environment that encourages profits,'' he said. As former governor Lord Wilson left Hong Kong in 1992, Dr Sohmen wrote: ''Not all plans have proceeded smoothly and not all problems have been solved. There have been difficulties within the administration and with the achievement of some of its objectives. Political confrontation has increased the scope for criticism at home and abroad. ''No organisation is perfect and the Hong Kong Government is certainly not infallible. There is no denying that Hong Kong has prospered during the past five years despite some errors and misjudgements.'' THE arrival of Governor Chris Patten in mid-1992 prompted Dr Sohmen to seek the resolution of issues including the new airport project, constitutional development, appointments to the Executive Council, relations with China and law and order. More recently, he has urged the Government to widen its tax base, suggesting indirect taxes such as duties on consumer goods and public utilities. Dr Sohmen has begun to cast his net further than World-Wide Shipping's core operations. A long-range business outlook is guiding him into China, where he has hinted at expansion into manufacturing and real estate. World-Wide is Hong Kong's leading tankeroperator, running a fleet which has grown to about 50 tankers. Dr Sohmen has revealed a strong environmental conscience by advocating that ageing tankers be scrapped and replaced with new double-hull ships. ''There's always hope that in 1995 or 1996, when the existing [world] tanker fleet becomes 20 years old, that repair prices will become too expensive.'' ,'' he said. Following the Sohmen philosophy, World-Wide has scrapped about eight large crude carriers in the last two years, and planned to replace them by buying six new ships. Dr Sohmen also backed a Shell International blueprint urging governments to pour money into the enforcement of shipping rules. With an eye on his industry's ''irresponsible'' image, the international magnate also advocated a global public relations campaign. Dr Sohmen received the Companion of the International Service order in the 1991 New Year's Honours List.