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Secret of the 'Asia tigers' lures UK leaders



Traditionally, New Year is a time for Britons to start grasping for travel brochures and dreaming of trips to far-flung parts. The politicians, it seems, share this seasonal wanderlust.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, is just one of a clutch of senior politicians to head east this week - arriving in Hong Kong at the weekend, and travelling from there to China. Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is on his way to Tokyo and Singapore. Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, is in South Korea, heading for Japan.

As befits his position, Mr Rifkind's visit is relatively unencumbered by party politics. His concern is, above all, preparation for the smooth handover of Hong Kong to China in 18 months' time. After some renewed tensions in recent months - including the summoning of the acting Chinese ambassador in London over abusive remarks made about the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten - the Chinese have become almost courteous. British officials praise the "reasonably positive mood" in Peking, while simultaneously urging caution.

Mr Rifkind's visit is intended to "reassure people in Hong Kong and the international community". Certainly, reassurance is still needed. As Hong Kong's D-Day approaches, China's intentions remain as unclear as ever. Britain almost openly admits that it no longer has much influence on China's behaviour. London must rely, in effect, on Peking behaving decently of its own accord.

China's behaviour in recent weeks has made it clear that it still takes scant notice of international opinion on political rights. The imprisonment for 14 years of the leading dissident, Wei Jingsheng, caused worries in Hong Kong, because of the implications for the colony. Mr Patten insisted that "our patience, while legendary, is not infinite". Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, noted sceptically that Mr Patten would be "judged by history".

Mr Rifkind's main purpose is to consolidate relations, not to put Peking under pressure. Officials in London insist that there is "no daylight whatsoever" between Mr Patten and the British Government. But Mr Patten's tone has often been brusquer than that of the Foreign Office. The British believe that it is "a great pity" that China excluded leading local democrats from its key Preparatory Committee, which is due to steer Hong Kong through the transition from British to Chinese rule. But Mr Rifkind will not press the point at his meetings in Peking next week.

One reason for British circumspection - references to the imprisonment of Mr Wei, for example, come almost as an afterthought - is the lure of Chinese business, which no Western country wants to lose. This, in a sense, is the common factor in all this week's long-haul trips.

The lessons of Asian business will be on Mr Blair's agenda, when he begins a four-day swing today through Japan and Singapore to underline his message that Asian economic success is underpinned by investment in "human capital".

Contradicting recent Conservative claims that the success of the "Asian tigers" can be put down to low taxes and deregulated markets, Mr Blair will focus on policies for education and "lifelong learning".

In a speech in Tokyo tomorrow, Mr Blair is expected to describe the globalisation of economies as the defining challenge of our time, with "enormous potential for good, but also displacing people and industries and causing job insecurity".

In meeting this challenge, he believes "left-of-centre thinking across the world" has to be "reshaped", a spokesman for the Labour leader said yesterday, stressing low inflation, open trade, "proper" infrastructure, public-private partnerships, internationally competitive tax rates, regulation that is not rigid and bureaucratic and, "above all, investment in people as our main resource".

On Sunday Mr Blair travels to Singapore, where he will also talk to business leaders, and where his path will cross that of Howard Davies, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, as well as that of Chris Smith, Mr Blair's social security spokesman, who is looking at the Central Provident Fund of the Singapore welfare system.

Mr Portillo, meanwhile, has been in the Philippines and arrives in South Korea today, before flying to Tokyo at the weekend. The official focus of his trip is "security and stability in the region". But he and other Euro-sceptics have made no secret of their firm belief that Asia rather than Europe holds the key to success.

The agenda of the third Cabinet member in Asia - Michael Howard, the Home Secretary - is rather different. He is now in India, and will move on to Pakistan, to hold a series of meetings with senior officials, on problems associated with immigration into the UK. Not so much learning lessons as delivering them.