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
The diplomatic riff caused by defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s comments will blow over—but we should still learn from it. Photo: PA 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, and the history of British involvement with China which is etched into what they call the “century of humiliation.” In the 19th century, the British took to shipping opium from Calcutta to China as a means of payment for porcelain, silk and other products. The Emperor resisted the British, who manufactured a war in defence of what they labelled free trade. The First Opium War (1839-1842) resulted in defeat for China, which had to pay a large indemnity and submit to the humiliating Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing), which forced China to legalise the sale of opium and succumb to various forms of commercial and legal subjugation. The treaty also gave control in perpetuity over an area that British naval forces had seized, called Hong Kong, or Fragrant Harbour (Heung Gong in the original language) as well as other “treaty ports.” Some 14 years later, in 1856, the British went to war again. China’s defeat in the Second Opium War ended with the Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin) in 1860, in which China was again obliged to pay an indemnity, and which created new treaty ports and added Kowloon and the New Territories to the territory of Hong Kong. On the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, President Xi Jinping visited the city and noted that in the early 1840s, the Qing government with 800,000 troops could not stop a 10,000-person British expedition force, or avoid ceding territory and paying indemnities. Recounting the story of the British takeover of Kowloon and the New Territories after the Qing dynasty was defeated in the two Opium Wars, he said “The history of China at that time was filled with the nation’s humiliation and its people’s grief.…Twenty years ago today, Hong Kong returned to the motherland’s embrace, washing away the Chinese nation’s hundred years of shame”—or the century of humiliation, as it is more commonly known. Britain’s role has never been forgotten. So where does this latest frisson with China leave the “Golden Era” of UK-China relations, invoked by David Cameron and George Osborne? Was there indeed ever any meaning in the phrase? Realistically, the UK has been China’s preferred FDI destination in the EU until recently. Whether this services Brexit is a moot point. UK trade with China has grown by leaps and bounds, but we still export about £3 billion less to China than to the Republic of Ireland. London has been trying to attract offshore Renminbi currency and bond business, but the volume of offshore Renminbi business outside Hong Kong and Singapore is quite limited. More recently, we have expressed, along with others, security and privacy concerns about Chinese technology companies operating in the UK, e.g. Huawei, and about Chinese enterprises taking stakes in UK tech firms. We are looking over our shoulders now at the funding and involvement of Chinese companies and institutions in UK universities, and industrial and scientific research establishments. These are besides wider governance issues in the world system, and basic human rights issues including most recently the repressive and intrusive treatment of Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang. None of these things mean we cannot or should not engage with China, and this spat will probably blow over. The British Chancellor will doubtless go to China before long. But we have to find a form of diplomacy in which we can be unequivocal about what we think about international law, FONOPS, security and technology policies, but also be sure we don’t compromise legitimate engagement by failing to understand China’s sensitivity about us.