People's Army general tackles military details

The head of the largest army on Earth, the two-million strong People's Liberation Army of China, is in Britain today on the first visit of its kind since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 soured relations between China and the West.

General Fu Quanyou, China's Chief of the General Staff, will this morning see Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Chief of Defence Staff, Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge. This afternoon he will visit the Foreign Office.

The Ministry of Defence yesterday refused to say why the general was visiting, but the timing of the visit and his conversations with Mr Portillo and Field Marshal Inge indicate he will be discussing the transfer of authority for the security of Hong Kong from the British armed forces to the PLA, exact details of which still have not been worked out, senior defence sources said last week.

The last-but-one round of talks in the Anglo-Chinese Joint Liaison Group (JLG), the diplomatic body handling Hong Kong's return to China, failed last week to agree arrangements for the advance stationing of Chinese troops in the colony.

Britain's chief negotiator, Hugh Davies, said the failure of three days of talks, the 39th round in 15-year-long negotiations, was especially "disappointing".

China also expressed regret at the lack of agreement. Hong Kong's China- backed Wen Wei Po newspaper reported on Saturday that defence matters were one key area of outstanding problems, along with Vietnamese asylum- seekers, of whom 6,000 are left in the colony, and the transfer of Hong Kong government files.

"We are now in the crucial stage of the process," Mr Davies said in a statement. "We need to close the remaining gaps."

The Chinese delegation blamed Britain for the lack of progress. "The Chinese side has made the greatest possible effort to accommodate the concerns of the British side, but the British side is still adopting disappointing delaying tactics and trying to establish linkage between unrelated issues," said China's ambassador to London, Zhao Jihua, who heads the Chinese delegation.

On an advance guard of Chinese troops, Mr Davies said the two sides had narrowed their differences but had been unable to reach agreement. "Britain has long taken the position that some advance parties are a good idea," he said. "The problems lie in the size of those parties and the timing of their arrival."

General Fu, who arrived in London on Saturday, begins a series of regional visits tomorrow, designed to acquaint him with British Army equipment and training.

Born in 1930, the general joined the PLA in 1946 and served as an infantry officer. He was commander of the Chengdu military region, facing India, which merged with the Kunming military region, facing Burma, Laos and Vietnam, in the mid-1980s. He became ageneral in 1993. He has been Chief of the General Staff since September 1995.