Secret of the 'Asia tigers' lures UK leaders

STEVE CRAWSHAW AND

JOHN RENTOUL

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower