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Gavin Williamson’s Gaffe

First published:  17th February 2019

Philip Hammond’s trip to China to talk trade has been torpedoed. This 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 Gavin Williamson, the Defence Minister’s speech in which, wearing his Global Britain hat, he announced that HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, would be sent to ‘the Pacific region’. He went on that Britain must be prepared to take military action against countries that flout international law. (

Williamson had 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 must have thought he’d gone too far. The Chinese ambassador to the UK labelled his speech ‘idiotic’, and Beijing’s reaction could not have been clearer.

Now, it is one thing for the US Pacific Fleet, and the 7th Fleet in particular – the largest of the forward-deployed U.S. fleets, with 60 to 70 ships, 300 aircraft and 40,000 Navy and Marine Corps – to be ordered to conduct freedom of navigation operations 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.  

But what’s the point of the UK sending an aircraft carrier to the Pacific ? 

It’s not that the Brits shouldn’t show solidarity with the US, and I don’t think his gaffe was necessarily about participating in FONOPS, or freedom of navigation operations.  But why did he have to pre-announce the HMS Queen Elizabeth assignment just before Hammond was about to go to China? And why did he have to make a big deal about it? The long and wide-ranging speech, itself, touches on important topics and there is nothing wrong in a Defence Minister setting out his country’s beliefs and values, but you get the impression the some of it, including the aircraft carrier bit, reeks of Brexit gesture politics, and desperation to be taken seriously as a global power.

Why else would Williamson state  ‘That is why Global Britain needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action’. Global Britain is the rhetoric of Brexit, beyond which it is meaningless.

Plus, didn’t anyone at the Ministry of Defence of FCO tell Williamson about the Opium Wars, and  history of British involvement with China in what they call the ‘century of humiliation’? China’s behaviour in many spheres isn’t exactly widely welcomed nowadays, but aren’t we, as a very junior power, supposed to be diplomatic?

This spat will probably blow over, and a British Chancellor will doubtless go to China before long. But if we want to sustain a form of engagement with China, and also make an issue of FONOPS half way across the world, we should be sure to understand China’s sensitivity about them – and us. 

China’s trade and Opium War echoes

Strangely, or not, trade has again become very sensitive to China. It is the world’s largest export nation, and most of its energy imports and about 40 per cent of its merchandise trade passes through the South China Sea. It doesn’t excuse – but it explains China’s more assertive and controversial naval strategies to militarise and commercialise disputed islands, and try to keep the US 7th fleet at arm’s length in the Pacific. 

Geopolitical control over access to the Pearl River Delta and the outlying seas has historical form, and dates back to the activities of Chinese navigators into the 16th century, and more particularly to the relatively more recent periods in which European nations first circumnavigated Africa and sailed north to the Orient in the pursuit of trade. China’s experience with Europeans and others in the 19th and 20th centuries did involve an opening up to trade and modernity, but also major political tensions, and wars. The Brits have a special role in China’s narrative. 

In the 19th century, the British paid with silver for a growing demand for tea and Chinese porcelain and silk, but eventually, the sheer scale of silver outflows forced the East India Company to think of alternatives. The British took to shipping opium from Calcutta to China as a means of payment. The Chinese Emperor tried to stop the trade, and ban its use in China, but this early war on drugs did not succeed. 

The British manufactured a war in defence of what they labelled free trade, the First Opium War, that lasted from 1839-1842. It resulted in defeat for China, which had to pay a large indemnity and submit to the humiliating Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing), This and subsequent treaties were labelled ‘unequal treaties’ because they forced China to legalise the sale of opium within China, accept an artificially low foreign trade tariff of 5 per cent, forgo its own industrialisation efforts, and grant foreigners ‘extraterritorial rights’ while they lived in the treaty port enclaves or ‘concessions’ in relation to Chinese laws, taxes and legal arrangements.The treaties also bestowed ‘most-favoured nation’ status on Britain and others, so that China had the impossible task of gaining unanimous consent from all foreign powers in order to recover any sovereign rights lost in treaties. China’s loss of sovereignty in these respects would not be restored until 1943 in negotiated treaties.

The 1842 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, or Xianggang in Mandarin). The Treaty also established other ‘treaty ports’, including Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Amoy (Xiamen), Foochow (Fuzhou) and Ningpo (Ningbo).

Some 14 years after the First Opium War, in 1856, the British went to war again after failing to win new concessions from China, including the legalisation of opium. China’s defeat in the Second Opium War ended with the Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin) in1860, in which China was again obliged to pay an indemnity, and which created new treaty ports, added Kowloon and the New Territories to the territory of Hong Kong, threw Chinese ports and the Yangtze river network open to foreign ships, legalised the use and import of opium, and removed restrictions on Christianity and freedom of travel within China.

Hong Kong, world-renowned and one-time symbol of the British Empire and British reach overseas, was returned to China in 1997 in a ‘handover’, the 20th anniversary of which was celebrated in China in 2017. In recent years, as is all known, China’s slogan of ‘one country, two systems’ in which Hing Kong’s Basic Law was supposed to preserve its governance structure for 50 years, has been found to be hollow.

The Opium Wars, and Britain’s role in particular, occupy a special place in China’s historical narrative. On the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, President Xi Jinping visited the city and noted in one speech 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. 

UK-China relations now

The Golden Era of UK-China relations, invoked by David Cameron and George Osborne, was always a bit of an exaggeration. 

The UK has been China’s preferred FDI destination in the EU until recently, but probably won’t be post-Brexit. 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, and there’s an as yet inactive plan to connect the London and Chinese stock exchanges. However, the volume of offshore Renminbi business outside Hong Kong and Singapore is quite limited. 

Now, we have additional fish to fry, including security and privacy concerns about Chinese technology companies operating in the UK, e.g. Huawei; the desire of Chinese enterprises to take stakes in UK tech firms; the funding and involvement of Chinese companies and institutions in UK universities, and industrial and scientific research establishments; and more broadly, China’s attempts to shape global governance and global institutions, and seek influence abroad. These are besides basic human rights issues, including most recently, the repressive and intrusive treatment of Uighurs in the western province of Xinjiang. 

None of these things mean we cannot engage with China, and in fact we are more like to be able to use influence and persuasion if we do. Yet, the British government has to be able to both draw its red lines, as Williamson was trying to do, as well as display to China a sensitivity that matters, which he didn’t. Diplomacy has to be better than that.