The relationship between China and Britain is now "at its best," according to Sir Christopher Hum, the British Ambassador to China.
His words have struck a chord among Chinese experts in international affairs.
Wang Zhenhua, a senior research fellow at the Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "Tremendous progress has been made in exchanges and co-operation between the two countries since the smooth return of Hong Kong to China in 1997."
Under the current complex international situation, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Beijing tour will promote the development of an all-round partnership between the two nations. He arrived in China yesterday and is set to leave tomorrow.
The visit will enable the two countries to better know each other, exchange views on major international and regional issues, and discuss new forms of further substantial co-operation in all fields. The in-depth talks will undoubtedly strengthen mutual understanding and trust and inject new vigour into bilateral ties.
This is Blair's first China tour since he renewed his term of office in 2001 and China's new leadership assumed office in March.
As two influential countries in the world and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China and Britain share much in common and shoulder major responsibilities in international affairs. A sound, long-term and stable relationship between China and Britain serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples and is conducive to regional as well as world peace and stability.
Sino-British relations have been up and down over the years.
Britain was the first major Western country to recognize the People's Republic of China after its founding on October 1, 1949. Diplomatic relations between the two countries upgraded to the ambassadorial level on March 13, 1972, which ushered in a new era for bilateral ties.
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed frequent exchanges of high-level visits between the two sides. "The signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong on December 19, 1984 is a significant landmark in bilateral ties," said Feng Zhongping, director of the Institute of European Studies under the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
However, relations suffered a serious setback due to Britain's sanctions against China after 1989. In the early 1990s, Sino-British relations fell to another low after Britain pushed forward the political reform package in Hong Kong, which contravened the joint declaration, the principle of convergence with the Basic Law and the agreements and understandings reached between the two sides.
Despite the twists and turns, the smooth handover of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997 opened a new chapter in the annals of Sino-British relations. Both countries vowed to make Hong Kong a bridge, not a barrier in bilateral ties.
"We have seen the 'one country two systems' principle run very well in Hong Kong and Hong Kong maintained stability and prosperity on the basis of the smooth handover since 1997," Hum said. "There is no doubt that this has enabled Sino-British relations to develop particularly strongly since then."
Following former premier Zhu Rongji's official visit to Britain in April 1998 and Blair's visit to China in October the same year, the two countries issued a joint statement, formally announcing the establishment of an all-round partnership to expand exchanges and co-operation. The statement has defined a basic framework for the development of enhanced and comprehensive relations.
High-ranking contacts have been frequent since 1998. In October 1999, former president Jiang Zemin's state visit to Britain at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II marked the first visit to the country by a Chinese head of State since the establishment of diplomatic ties.
Jiang proposed three principles for the development of Sino-British relations: always proceeding from the overall interests of bilateral relations; basing economic co-operation and trade on mutual benefit; and increasing exchanges at all areas.
The high-level consultation mechanisms between the two sides in both governmental and non-governmental phases have boosted the establishment of mutual trust and strengthened co-ordination and communication, according to Wang.
The China-UK Forum, launched by the two heads of government in 1998, plays an important role in providing a clear focus for non-government high-level contacts.
"Growing economic and trade ties between the two countries are not only of mutual benefit, but also serve to enhance overall co-operation and understanding," said Ma Zhengang, the former Chinese Ambassador to Britain.
With trade value topping US$11.4 billion in 2002, Britain has become the second largest trade partner of China among European Union (EU) countries.
British actual investment in China has so far surpassed US$10.7 billion, making Britain China's largest investor in the EU.
As Wang points out, economic interests have served as a major catalyst for a fruitful relationship between China - the world's largest emerging market in need of expertise for development - and Britain, the world's first industrialized nation.
Experts predict that with the further expansion of the Chinese market as a result of China's entry into the World Trade Organization, Sino-British economic co-operation will reach new heights in the years to come.
Hum held that China's ongoing development of its western areas has provided both countries with new grounds for further co-operation.
Cultural and educational links have also helped build bridges between the two countries, in particular between their younger generations. Britain was one of the earliest among European countries to join China in creating academic bonds.
The Sino-British Conference of University Vice-Chancellors and Principals has been held each year in Beijing or London since 1997. The two sides signed the China-Britain Framework Agreement on Educational Co-operation in 2000 and the Memorandum on the Reciprocal Establishment of Cultural Centres in 2002.
According to Ma, over 50,000 Chinese students had studied in Britain by July 2002, more than seven times that of 1997. And British people are now more interested in learning about China.
To this end, Hum said the British Government will make efforts to further increase its knowledge as a way of enhancing its friendship with China.
The dialogue and co-operation between the two sides on human rights, judicial matters, arms control, anti-terrorism, and other regional and international affairs have continued to develop.
It is necessary to strengthen exchanges and dialogue on the basis of equality and mutual respect to broaden mutual understanding as the two countries have different histories, cultural traditions and social systems.
There are no fundamental strategic disparities between the two nations.
Experts believe that in a world of accelerated globalization, the strengthening of an all-round partnership between China and Britain promises prospects across the board. (China Daily News)