UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has been caught at the center of a huge row with China after he threatened to send a warship to the Pacific. In response Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua cancelled scheduled trade talks with Britain’s finance minister Philip Hammond just "hours" after the remarks, Reuters revealed Thursday.
The talks had been set for the coming weekend, with reports specifically noting Chunhua canceled the meeting "in protest at Williamson’s speech on Monday."
During those remarks the defense secretary said that the UK must “show [China] the high price of aggressive behavior.” He also spoke of the British military boosting its "lethality" —however, ironically it appears Britain has actually suffered the immediate repercussions.
Williamson has been frequently advancing his vision of Britain's return to being a "hard power" in the world, and during the enthusiastic speech Monday revealed that HMS Queen Elizabeth, the country’s largest warship or small aircraft carrier, could deploy to the Pacific with two squadrons of UK and US F-35 fighter jets. He said that without a more aggressive UK defense posture, Britain “risks our nation being seen as little more than a paper tiger,” while China develops “its modern capability and commercial power.”
The unnecessary diplomatic row unleashed with Beijing has reportedly enraged Tory leadership. “There is huge anger across cabinet. Gavin was partially inciting a war – the team knew China wouldn’t be happy,” a source told The Sun, which was the first to report the rift. They charged that what's been commonly dubbed as Williamson's "British Empire 2.0" rhetoric has risked "Britain’s chances to access Chinese markets worth billions," according to The Sun report.
The Sun report further outlines the devastating short-term trade consequences of the over-zealous speech as follows:
China had been expected to lift their bans on British poultry and cosmetics which have not been tested on animals.
The agreements would have opened up access to markets worth an estimated £10.2billion over five years.
Mr Hammond was expected to return to Britain on Sunday triumphantly clutching the two Memorandums of Understandings with China.
The deals would have been a desperately-needed boost for the Government, which is scrambling to drum up trade as Brexit looms.
But as the report notes, "Mr Chunhua pulled out of the talks at the eleventh hour."
Meanwhile it appears PM Theresa May's office is trying to downplay the row, telling Reuters the PM was not aware of any announced trip by Chancellor Hammond to China; instead it now appears China is ready to send only junior officials to the trade talks with the UK.
May had also distanced herself from Williamson's China comments in the immediate aftermath of the speech earlier this week. According to The Independent, her official spokesperson said "the carrier would not be deployed until 2021, that it would visit a number of global locations and that the PM would take the final decision over its route."
Asked specifically about a more muscular approach to China, the prime minister’s office said further: ”In relation to China, I think we have set out areas where we have concerns – such as around cyber-intrusions against the UK and our allies. But it is also a country with which we have a strong and constructive relationship.”
This could spell the end of Williamson's British Empire reboot defense policy efforts which have been prominent in his remarks for months, as Tory leaders attempt to reign him in and repair the economic damage.