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Blair to Visit China for Talks on North Korean Nuclear Crisis - 2003-07-17

British Prime Minister Tony Blair holds talks in China about the North Korean nuclear crisis, Hong Kong politics, and post-war Iraq on Monday.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan says the North Korean nuclear issue will be the "most important" topic on the agenda for British Prime Minister Tony Blair's talks in Beijing.

Mr. Blair is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, President Hu Jintao, and former president Jiang Zemin.

Mr. Kong says Mr. Blair's visit is of "vital significance" and that Britain and China will have "an in-depth exchange of views" but would give no details.

The British Foreign Office would not offer any details either, but Mr. Blair's visit comes as China is searching intensely for a solution to the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which is in violation of international accords.

Some Chinese political analysts say the British prime minister's close ties to Washington might prompt Beijing to use these talks to send important messages to the Bush Administration. Another analyst says the issue is so complex and difficult that a breakthrough is not likely during Mr. Blair's visit.

China's Foreign Ministry says the two nations will also discuss how to rebuild war-torn Iraq. China is urging that the United Nations play a leading role in the reconstruction effort, which is currently dominated by the United States.

After the talks, Mr. Blair will stop in Hong Kong, which was a British colony for a century and a half before returning to Chinese rule in 1997. The territory is in the midst of a political crisis over proposed new security laws, which critics say will destroy free press and free speech allowed in Hong Kong, but not China.

Since July 1 there have been massive public demonstrations, which have caused the government to delay passing the laws and forced the resignations of senior government officials, which has Beijing concerned.

Political science professor Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong, says Mr. Blair has useful role to play.

"The fact that he comes to Hong Kong indicates his government of the U.K. still attaches a lot of significance… to the former colony," he said. "We certainly expect him to raise the issues of human rights, freedom of speech and democratic reforms with China. We also expect that he will only raise those issues in a moderate, gentle manner."

Professor Cheng says China's leaders are likely to listen to Mr. Blair because he may influence Hong Kong's vital business community or raise concerns among foreign investors who are key to future economic growth in Hong Kong and China.

Prime Minister Blair's visit to China is part of a diplomatic journey that also takes him to the United States, South Korea and Japan.