China tells Cook that UN can visit

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China told Robin Cook yesterday that it would welcome a visit by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Teresa Poole in Peking considers what results the overture will yield.

It was Qian Qichen, the Chinese foreign minister, who raised the subject of human rights during four hours of discussions and dinner with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. Eager to emphasise the "fresh start" to Sino- British relations, Mr Qian took the opportunity to announce that the Chinese government "was ready to welcome a visit to China by Mary Robinson [the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights] at any time".

The choice of Mr Cook as the conduit for what Peking regards as a concession to international opinion underlines improved relations between Britain and China since the handover of Hong Kong last year. Yesterday it emerged that Tony Blair's visit to China is scheduled for September.

In a further sign of openness on China's part, the United States Defense Decretary, William Cohen, was given a tour of a secret air defence base.

The invitation to Mrs Robinson contained no details of what access she would be granted, so there is no guarantee that China's conditions would prove acceptable. None the less, Mr Cook welcomed the offer. It was also agreed that the dialogue between the European Union and China on human rights would reconvene in Peking next month and again in May.

Today, over lunch with a Chinese vice-foreign minister, Mr Cook will raise the EU list of about a dozen jailed dissidents. China rarely responds to such lists, which are presented regularly by Western politicians without securing releases.

Mr Cook told Mr Qian he wanted Sino-British relations to proceed on a "wide road", a message he will reiterate in a meeting with President Jiang Zemin today. The United Kingdom spokesman said human rights was one element of a "four-part agenda", which included Hong Kong, international issues such as Iraq and the environment, and UK and EU relations with China, including trade. Mr Cook wants his 24-hour mainland visit to yield progress on an insurance operating licence for Royal and Sun Alliance and more air routes for British carriers.

Mr Cook's brief visit to Peking has coincided with that of Mr Cohen, the US Defense Secretary. Yesterday, Mr Cohen became the first foreigner allowed to tour a secret Chinese regional air defence command centre in Peking, which US officials said was a "breakthrough" in building trust between the two countries. Until this month, the Chinese had denied that the site existed.

Later in the day, Mr Cohen secured reassurances from his counterpart, General Chi Haotian, that China would not sell anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran.

Despite an atmosphere designed to promote greater openness between the two countries' military establishments, Mr Cohen's underlying message in a speech at the Academy of Military Sciences was tough. He said China's willingness to cooperate with the US would largely determine the future of security in Asia. "We can work together toward our common interest, or we can work against each other," Mr Cohen said. "The United States will succeed on either path."