New airport's lift-off marred by disagreement and distrust

On Thursday morning a small turbo-prop Beech Super King aircraft, loaded with VIPs, will touch down on the uncompleted runway of one of the world's most expensive and politically controversial new airports.

The ceremonial flight is being made to demonstrate that construction of Hong Kong's new international airport is proceeding at a furious pace so that it can open for business by April next year. This is almost a year behind schedule but, unusually for an important infrastructure project, the delay has nothing to do with building problems and everything to do with almost five years of Sino-British wrangling over the financing of the project.

On the ground it does not seem that the airport will be finished in just 14 months. The massive 1,248-hectare site is awash in a sea of mud, broken by the towering shell of a passenger terminal designed to handle 30 million passengers per year. Within 10 to 20 years the airport will be handling 89 million passengers a year, and 2 million tons of cargo, making it the world's busiest airport. However it will be far from being the largest - it is, for example, about half the size of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

A small army of 21,000 people, speaking a babble of languages, mill around purposefully under the eyes of hundreds of contractors. Only at meal times do the nationalities divide into distinct groups, with the Chinese heading straight for their rice and noodles, the Brits for solid Western stodge, the Indians for curries and the Japanese for their neatly constructed lunch boxes.

The logistics of getting the airport built are daunting. In land-challenged Hong Kong, finding the space was problem number one. As a consequence a barely inhabited island had to be evacuated, its hills levelled and the debris removed; 10,000 tonnes per second were shifted at the initial site clearance stage.

Because the airport is not on the mainland it had to be linked by a 1,377- metre-long suspension bridge. A new railway and highways are being built and a new town is rising next to the airport which will eventually house some 200,000 people.

The entire project is being built in a six-year time frame. Given the tight programme, no one is taking risks with cutting-edge technology. Only tried and tested methods are being employed.

The airport and its associated projects will cost some pounds 12.5bn, making it one of the world's largest infrastructure projects. Originally the government envisaged most of the financing coming from the private sector, underwritten by state guarantees. However, China, which is intensely suspicious about Britain's plans for Hong Kong's impressively deep coffers, would not agree to any large long-term financing commitments which would have to be honoured by the incoming Chinese administration.

The Chinese seemed genuinely to believe that the British would use this big project as a way of eating into the coffers and funnelling money back to London. But it is hard to argue that the colonial administration has used the airport as a way of rewarding British companies. The lion's share of the business has gone to the Japanese who have secured a quarter of the cash allocated so far. British companies come second, with 16 per cent and Chinese companies are in the third place with half this amount. The government insists that contracts were awarded solely on merit.

The Chinese do not believe this. Hence there were endless talks and delays. In 1991 the Prime Minister, John Major, was forced, much against his better judgement, to become the first important Western leader to visit Peking after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The idea was to sign an agreement which would finally break the deadlock. The impasse, however, persisted for another three years but China managed to lighten its period of diplomatic isolation by dangling the carrot of an agreement on the airport.

Even now China is making sure that the airport will not open before British sovereignty over Hong Kong ends. Peking did not want the territory's largest construction project open for business while Britain was running the colony.

The delay also gives China greater scope for naming the airport, a delicate subject which is rarely discussed. China may wish to have a Deng Xiaoping Airport, named after the ailing paramount leader, or a Reunification Airport, reflecting the phrase China usually uses when talking about the resumption of its sovereignty in July. Alternatively the mundane name Hong Kong International Airport might be retained.