Britain’s finance minister Philip Hammond scraps China trip amid plans to deploy new UK aircraft carrier to Pacific
- Plans to send a new aircraft carrier to the Pacific angered Beijing
- Hammond had been set to visit China for trade talks with senior government figures
Britain’s finance minister Philip Hammond has cancelled a trip to China, a government official said, a day after a Chinese official in London criticised Britain’s defence secretary for making a return to a “cold war mentality”.
The trip was to discuss issues affecting China-UK economic and financial relations. Hammond was expected to discuss plans for a stock market connection between the countries and wanted to fix a date for the postponed UK-China Economic and Financial Dialogue.
“The chancellor is not travelling to China at this time,” a spokesperson for the Treasury said Saturday. “No trip was ever announced or confirmed.”
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson on Monday said in a speech that Britain’s new £3.1 billion (US$4 billion) aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth would be deployed to Asia on its maiden voyage and said China is “developing its modern military capability and its commercial power”.
Williamson said the deployment was a UK show-of-strength as China increasingly disputes the waters in the region.
The comments reportedly provoked anger in Beijing as well as consternation in British government departments eager to foster closer relations with China.
Hammond had been expected to meet Chinese vice-premier Hu Chunhua but that was cancelled following Williamson’s speech, leading Britain to scrap the entire visit, Financial Times reported.
An spokesman at China’s embassy in London said Williamson “made groundless accusations” that he said reflected a type of “cold war mentality”.
“China firmly opposes that,” the spokesman said.
“Meanwhile, China has also noticed the prime minister’s spokesman stressed that UK holds strong and constructive relationships with China.”
China is highly sensitive about the South China Sea, which it claims as its exclusive territorial waters, and is mired in ongoing disputes with its neighbours and the United States over access.
Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of the vast waters, and the US and its allies increasingly send planes and warships to the region to make “freedom of navigation operations”.
In mid-January, British and American warships conducted their first joint military exercises in the sea since Beijing began building bases and air strips on islands there.
In the deployment announcement, Williamson said American F-35 jets would be embedded alongside British planes on the carrier’s air wing, “enhancing the reach and lethality of our forces”.
Separately, Williamson drew a jibe on Saturday from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Munich Security Conference.
In a reference to a speech in Williamson accused Russia of “trying to goad the west” into a new arms race, Lavrov mixed up his title.
“If you listen to some people like the minister of war - oh, sorry the minister of defence - of the United Kingdom, then you might get an impression that nobody except Nato have the right to be anywhere,” Lavrov said as he discussed security in the Arctic region.
Hammond’s visit to China will be scheduled at a later date, according to the official.
Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse