Chancellor will not make trade trip to China next week amid fury at Gavin Williamson pledge to send aircraft carrier

Treasury announces Philip Hammond will not go on trade mission - after anger over defence secretary's 'gunboat diplomacy'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 16 February 2019 10:39
HMS Queen Elizabeth - Key facts and figures

The chancellor will not visit China after Beijing reacted with fury to the defence secretary Gavin Williamson’s plan to send a British aircraft carrier to the country’s backyard.

Philip Hammond was expected to undertake the trade mission next week – a vital part of efforts to build the UK’s global trading links ahead of Brexit – but the Treasury announced he will not go.

It follows Mr Williamson’s “gunboat diplomacy”, when he announced HMS Queen Elizabeth would be sent to the Pacific and that Britain was prepared to use “lethal” force to deter countries that “flout international law”.

The speech was widely seen as a threat to China over its expansion in the South China Sea and triggered a protest by the Chinese ambassador to the foreign office.

Privately, both Downing Street and the Treasury were believed to be livid about what one British official told The Financial Times was an “idiotic speech” by Mr Williamson.

Mr Hammond’s visit to China had not been announced but included a likely meeting between the chancellor and his opposite number, vice-premier Hu Chunhua.

The UK and China have had no high-level meetings since another British ship, the HMS Albion, sailed close to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea last September.

China controls the islands which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan and was angry that the UK’s new carrier was to be deployed to the area on its maiden voyage.

A Treasury spokesperson told The Independent: “The chancellor is not travelling to China at this time. No trip was ever announced or confirmed.”

In his bellicose speech last Tuesday, Mr Williamson said the UK had to be ready to use “hard power”, saying: “Russia is resurgent – rebuilding its military arsenal to bring the independent countries of the former Soviet Union like Georgia and Ukraine back into its orbit.

“All the while China is developing its modern capability and commercial power.”

The speech was criticised instantly, including by the Liberal Democrats who said: “Gavin Williamson is heating up UK defence rhetoric, something which may well be seen as provocation by Beijing.”

Afterwards, Downing Street did not deny that Beijing had been in contact to express its displeasure. “We have regular discussions with the Chinese government,” said Ms May’s spokesman.

The row suggests a split between ministers, including Mr Hammond and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, who want close relations with China – and hawks such as Mr Williamson who see Beijing as a security threat.

It comes as Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment maker that has supplied equipment in the UK, is under close scrutiny for its ties to the Beijing government.

George Osborne, the former Tory Chancellor, said: “You have got the defence secretary engaging in gunboat diplomacy of a quite old-fashioned kind at the same time as the chancellor of the exchequer and the foreign secretary are going around saying they want a close economic partnership with China.”

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