HONG KONG – British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) dealt Tuesday with big Asian worries, predicting talks within weeks to end the North Korean nuclear standoff and praising China's apparent hands-off approach to Hong Kong's political crisis.
Despite political troubles at home, Blair has discussed North Korea (search) with leaders in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. His meetings with China's leaders, he said, left the impression that talks to resolve the 9-month-old nuclear standoff between Washington and Pyongyang were imminent.
"From my conversations they were certainly talking about a few weeks," said Blair. China is reportedly seeking a three-way meeting between it, Washington and Pyongyang to be joined later by Seoul and Tokyo.
In Hong Kong (search), Blair faced a diplomatically sensitive situation in Britain's former colony. Hong Kong is in crisis following a march by a half million people over concerns that a planned anti-subversion bill would threaten their liberties. Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa has put the bill on hold and said he would seek more consultations with the public.
Britain, which handed Hong Kong back to mainland China in 1997 after 156 years of colonial rule, says it has a political and moral responsibility to the territory and wants to see democratic elections here.
Blair said China's apparent hands-off approach to the mass protest makes it look like Beijing is respecting the form of government put in place when Britain handed the colony back to the motherland.
"It's a remarkable thing that we've got half a million people out there and the Chinese leadership let that happen, allowed it to happen and have taken some account of it," Blair said.
London and Beijing spent years drafting the so-called Joint Declaration that set out the colony's return to China. They agreed on a mini-constitution, the Basic Law, that preserved freedoms of speech, press and assembly, the rule of law and other rights that make Hong Kong in many ways like a Western society.
But the Basic Law also requires Hong Kong to pass anti-subversion legislation to protect China's national security.
"They are taking some account of what the Hong Kong people are saying," Blair said.
The prime minister's Asian trip has been dogged by the suicide of British defense adviser David Kelly, who leaked information to the British Broadcasting Corp. about the government's use of intelligence in the run up to war in Iraq.
The death appeared to drain Blair physically and emotionally, and images of him looking tense and haggard in Japan dominated the front pages of British newspapers.
Some critics have said he should have gone home and dealt with the issue, but he has carried on with his Asian tour, set to wrap up Thursday.
Blair's characteristic wide grin was back Tuesday as he talked about Britain's strengthening political and economic ties with China and seemed to revel in a question-and-answer session with Chinese students in Beijing.
"How you develop both economically and politically as a country is going to have a colossal impact on the whole world," Blair told students at elite Tsinghua University.