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China's army chief shown latest British weaponry

The head of China's 2-million-strong army met British defence bosses yesterday as part of a five-day tour of the United Kingdom aimed at warming up relations. The most significant encounter was with Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, suggesting that arms sales were on the agenda.

A European Union embargo on sales of arms to China has been in place since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But speculation is rising that the measure might be coming to an end. The Portuguese Defence Minister, Antonio Vitorino, said yesterday that the EU ban may be lifted soon, according to the Portuguese national news agency Lusa. "It is natural that the issue [of arms sales] will have to be re-examined" since relations between China and the EU were being normalised, he said in Peking.

General Fu Quanyou, 66, China's Chief of General Staff, who heads the People's Liberation Army, also saw his opposite number, Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, the Chief of Defence Staff; Jeremy Hanley, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office; and Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence.

General Fu's visit to Britain comes at the end of a European tour which has taken him to France, Belgium and Italy. He is the most senior defence representative from China to pay a full-scale visit to Britain since 1989. Chi Haotian, the Defence Minister, stopped over briefly last December, en route to Washington.

The Ministry of Defence also said that General Fu's visit was to reciprocate the hospitality extended to Field Marshal Inge when he visited China last November. In spite of its historic importance, the visit has been kept very low key.

Field Marshal Inge will retire in two weeks and sources said he was anxious that General Fu should visit before then. China is in the process of reducing its multi-million armed forces, and he was also anxious that General Fu should see a high-technology, well-trained, professional force, and to contrast this with the staged demonstrations which specially trained Chinese "court divisions" carry out for visitors.

Sources admitted that the Chinese might be interested in Harrier jump jets although the EU embargo meant that the opportunities for using such visits as arms-sales pitches were limited. Detailed arrangements for the handover of Hong Kong on 1 July were also discussed.

Today, General Fu heads for RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire, to see demonstrations by the latest Harrier jump jets, and to the Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, north-west London. Tomorrow he will visit Windsor Castle, the Defence Evaluation and Research Establishment experimental airfield at Boscombe Down, Hampshire, and the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill, Wiltshire, where he will see Britain's latest quick-firing gun, the AS 90. He will also visit the naval base at Portsmouth.