Gavin Williamson's warship blunder wasn't just foolish—it failed to recognise China's sensitivity about the UKby George Magnus / February 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
Philip Hammond’s trip to China to talk trade has been torpedoed. It was supposed to be an important visit, bearing in mind the UK’s precarious commercial outlook in the wake of Brexit.
But China cancelled his meeting with Party Vice Chairman Hu Chunhua, following Defence Minister Gavin Williamson’s speech in which he announced that HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, would be sent to “the Pacific region” and that Britain must be prepared to take military action against countries that flout international law.
Williamson had already ruffled Chinese feathers quite recently by approving the despatch of the warship, HMS Albion, to the South China Sea, and expressing concern about the prospect of Huawei becoming involved in the country’s 5G network.
On this occasion, though, the Chinese thought he’d gone too far. The ambassador to the UK labelled his speech “idiotic,” and Beijing’s reaction could not have been clearer.
But what’s the point of the UK sending an aircraft carrier to the Pacific? It’s little more than a rounding error when compared with the powerful US Pacific Fleet, which regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South and East China Seas against a China which is a major adversary—and which the US and some other Asian nations believe to be in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It’s not that Britain shouldn’t show solidarity with the US—but why did Williamson have to pre-announce a non-immediate HMS Queen Elizabeth assignment just before Hammond was about to go to China? And why make a big deal about it?
His long and wide-ranging speech touched on important topics and made a passionate case for the country’s beliefs and values, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that some of his words, and the aircraft carrier swagger especially, were more about Brexit gesture politics and the government’s desperation to be taken seriously as a global power.
In his own words: “‘Global Britain’ needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action.”
One is tempted also to ask whether anyone at the Ministry of Defence or Foreign Office briefed the Minister about the Opium Wars,…