The Chinese government approved the project in principle after the Prime Minister, John Major, signed a memorandum of understanding in Peking last autumn, but Peking objects to the financing proposals, saying they would leave Hong Kong deeply in debt after the colony is handed over in 1997. Little progress was reported after three hours of talks yesterday.
Although meetings will continue over the weekend, China is believed to be using the issue as a lever on Lord Wilson's successor, Chris Patten, who arrives in Hong Kong next Thursday. Peking suspects that his appointment heralds a tougher approach by Britain in the transition towards Chinese rule, with the pace of democratisation in Hong Kong speeding up, and an early agreement on the airport looks unlikely.
Studies since the early 1980s had shown that Hong Kong's existing airport, Kai Tak, was likely to run out of capacity during the following decade, but the manner and timing of the project's unveiling made it appear a political decision. Without consulting Peking or London, Lord Wilson announced the plan in late 1989, leading to the conclusion that it was designed to restore confidence in Hong Kong after the Tiananmen massacre that June.
China's unyielding opposition to the airport made it impossible to attract outside financing until Mr Major flew to Peking last October, the first leader of a UN Security Council member and the first European head of government to break the diplomatic boycott that followed the 1989 crackdown. The Prime Minister, who was also forced to give China the right to be consulted on matters which might affect Hong Kong after 1997, let it be known then that Lord Wilson's days were numbered.
Yesterday Lord Wilson sailed across to Kowloon and Kai Tak on Lady Maurine, the boat that will bring Mr Patten the other way next week. In a final radio interview, he defended the airport project, saying it was essential to Hong Kong's prosperity, and reiterated his belief that quiet diplomacy was the best way to deal with the Chinese. This was not intended as advice to his successor, he added.Reuse content