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Blair treads softly on China ties

By CNN's Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Blair's visit was intended to mend fences, rather than rock any boats.
Blair's visit was intended to mend fences, rather than rock any boats.

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(CNN) -- While British Prime Minister Tony Blair has pledged his support for "greater democracy" in Hong Kong, it is unlikely London will jeopardize British-Chinese ties over the territory's political reform.

The main purpose of Blair's visit to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong is to seek China's cooperation in diplomatic issues, particularly North Korea -- and to boost commercial ties with the fastest-growing economy in the world.

Blair also wants to mend fences with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership regarding the two countries' differences over Iraq, as well as the broader principle of "pre-emptive strikes" against countries with terrorist tendencies.

The British leader has by and large left a favorable impression with his hosts, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

However, among major European nations, Beijing attaches the most importance to -- and is on the closest wavelength to -- France and Germany.

And London has a long way to go before it can allay China's suspicions that the U.K. is in many ways a minion of President George W. Bush's "unilateralism."

After meeting Chinese leaders, Blair told reporters Monday that London supported "proposals to move toward greater democracy in Hong Kong."

He also backed Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's recent decision to postpone the enactment of a controversial bill against subversion, sedition and "leakage of state secrets."

On Wednesday, Blair is due to make a speech in Hong Kong in which he is expected to praise the territory's unique qualities -- including a high degree of autonomy, freedom of information and rule of law -- as an international city and business hub.

However, diplomatic analysts in Beijing said Blair did not press the Chinese leadership on the issue of civil and democratic rights in Hong Kong as hard as the White House or the U.S. Congress.


Much of the emphasis of the visit was on strengthening trade ties.
Much of the emphasis of the visit was on strengthening trade ties.

The analysts said this was in line with the generally low-key approach that London had taken the past half year or so toward Hong Kong's national security bill.

This despite the fact that as a signatory of the Sino-British Joint Declaration over Hong Kong, London has at least a moral obligation to closely monitor the progress of the "one country, two systems" model.

The official Chinese media quoted Blair as telling Premier Wen it was "gratifying" that the implementation of the handover had produced "very good results."

The British leader apparently did not respond to Wen's statement that he hoped "concerned countries will do more to support Hong Kong's stability" -- seen as a veiled warning against foreign countries interfering in Hong Kong affairs.

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Blair did not raise the issue of China's human rights conditions with his hosts.

On diplomatic matters, Blair secured Beijing's commitment that it would continue to press North Korea to dismantle its nuclear capability.

Equally importantly, the Chinese leadership proposed ways to consolidate the "comprehensive partnership relationship" between the two countries, including what Wen called "perfecting a mechanism for strategic dialogue and consultation."

It is understood that while Beijing continues to express deep reservations about the Iraq War, Blair and his hosts mainly concentrated on the economic reconstruction of the country, in which China wants to play an active role.

President Hu and Wen concurred with Blair, who is leading a large delegation of British businessmen, about the importance of enhancing bilateral trade and investment.

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