Inside File: China launches a diplomatic spring offensive

CHINESE diplomacy is at a frenzied pitch at the moment: in Singapore, the first formal talks with Taiwan; in Peking, the opening of a new round of negotiations with Britain on Hong Kong; in Washington, the lobbying to stop a congressional bill imposing human rights conditions on China's most-favoured- nation trade status; in Geneva, attempts to re-enter Gatt. And the Chinese Foreign Minister is touring the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and Germany, proving that a Tiananmen-era politician can now be welcomed in liberal European capitals.

The Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, is one of the chief architects of China's post-Tiananmen, come-in-from-the-cold strategy. Tackle Asian neighbours first, then the West. An Asian ambassador to London says privately: 'The Chinese make great efforts to keep their fellow Asian missions in London informed about Peking's position on Hong Kong. Yet in my time, the British Foreign Office had not once offered Asian embassies here unsolicited briefings about Britain's position.' This at a time when the Hong Kong Governor, Chris Patten, has been raising eyebrows by his confrontational approach towards the Chinese - a practice which is frowned upon not only by the FCO's old Sinologists, but also by some Asian diplomats with long experience of negotiating with Peking. 'It is important,' said one such envoy, 'to distinguish between manner and content in dealing with the Chinese.'

One nation that says it does receive wholly adequate briefings from the Foreign Office is mighty Japan. A member of the Group of Seven, the world's richest democracies, Japan is also the biggest investor in Hong Kong after Britain and China. To safeguard their position in both camps, Japanese diplomats also seek to act as a conduit between China and the West. This entails private briefings to their Chinese counterparts about the deliberations going on in G7 corridors on any matter affecting China, usually coupled with a bit of advice.

'They don't usually appear very appreciative, but I think they probably act on it,' said one Japanese official.

But back to the Chinese 'great effort' to keep their fellow Asians informed: not all Asian diplomats agree that Peking is doing better than London in the PR stakes. The latest Chinese strategy, it emerges, is to distribute position leaflets to Asian embassies. The leaflets are in Mandarin, handed round by hapless Chinese diplomats who are forced to ask: 'Is there possibly a Chinese expert in your embassy?'

A faxed statement arrives from the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, Ghazi Algosaibi, to announce he is taking 'legal advice' before 'determining his move' over a 1,500-word 'personal attack' by Bernard Levin in the Times on Tuesday. Mr Algosaibi, said to be 'boiling', has in fact apparently already resolved to sue over the article, which questions his suitability for his job.

What Mr Levin's tirade failed to note was that it was published on the first anniversary - to the day - of the ambassador's appointment to London, hailed at the time as part of Saudi Arabia's 'opening-up' movement to take its information policy into the 20th century. Mr Algosaibi, poet and former minister of industry - with an MA in International Relations from the University of Southern California and a PhD in political science from the University of London - had until this week been positively disposed towards the British press, and views his role in part as seeking to bridge seemingly unbridgeable cultures. His recent book, The Gulf Crisis, is subtitled An Attempt to Understand.

Mr Algosaibi spent yesterday talking to his London-based lawyers. This is seen as a personal, rather than diplomatic, matter. But while the ambassador is free to sue people, people are probably not free to sue the ambassador. If a diplomat can demonstrate that he is acting in the service of his country, he is as immune from civil lawsuits as he is from criminal proceedings. Whether the incident will affect the billions in UK exports to Saudi Arabia, or the fate of a British subject provisionally sentenced to public lashings in Riyadh over an alcohol offence, remains to be seen.