HC Deb 13 May 1965 vol 712 cc709-14
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on Mr. Gordon Walker's tour of South-East Asia.

I promised the House to say something about the results of Mr. Gordon Walker's tour of South-East Asia from 14th April to 4th May. This had three main purposes. Her Majesty's Government wanted Mr. Gordon Walker to supplement the reports of our ambassadors by providing me with a single, comprehensive account of the repercussions in South-East Asia of the Vietnam conflict. Her Majesty's Government also wanted him to explain, as my personal representative, British views to South-East Asian Governments, and to explore further with them the prospects for a negotiated settlement.

Because the value to me of Mr. Gordon Walker's report depended on the frankness with which he recorded his personal impressions, it is not suitable for publication.

But I do want to say something about the other objectives of this tour. Explaining British policy to foreign Governments and seeking their concurrence is normally the function of our ambassadors on the spot. But, when a particular aspect of British foreign policy has aroused as much interest in Britain itself as our attitude towards Vietnam, it is occasionally useful to supplement the ordinary diplomatic exchanges by a visit from someone more intimately acquainted with the British political scene that any of our ambassadors abroad are in a position to be.

I know that this aspect was particularly appreciated by many of the South-East Asian leaders with whom Mr. Gordon Walker had his discussions. I hope, too, that his visit may have helped to answer one complaint frequently reported by our ambassadors in South-East Asian capitals This is that, largely because of the workings of our parliamentary system, so few British political leaders visit that important part of the world.

But Mr. Gordon Walker's main achievement was in persuading certain friendly Governments to withdraw their objections to the proposal for a conference on Cambodia. As the House will recall, the previous Government's efforts to promote such a conference in 1964 foundered on objections from Thailand and South Vietnam. These, at least, have now been overcome, thanks in large part to our decision to emphasise the importance we attach to this project by sending a special emissary to visit these and other Governments.

It was a disappointment that the Chinese and North Vietnamese refused to see Mr. Gordon Walker. It is also regrettable that even the Soviet Government are, so far, only willing to contemplate negotiations on Cambodia rather than on Vietnam. But I earnestly believe that our inability to achieve an immediate and total solution of all the problems of South-East Asia should not deter us from tackling them one by one and trying to advance, step by step, to the negotiated solution which remains our objective.

Mr. Maudling

I should like to ask the Foreign Secretary questions on three points arising from that statement. First, will he tell the House what information he has received from Mr. Gordon Walker, or what information Mr. Gordon Walker has given to other Governments in South-East Asia that could not have been transmitted equally well, possibly even better, through the established diplomatic channels?

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman refers to his disappointment that the Chinese and North Vietnamese refused to see Mr. Gordon Walker. Was this not known before Mr. Gordon Walker left, and did it not, in fact, from the start, place him in an impossible position?

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman says that Mr. Gordon Walker's main achievement was in persuading certain friendly countries to withdraw their objections to the proposal of a conference on Cambodia, but is it not the fact, to which the Foreign Secretary did not refer, that the Cambodian Government—who, presumably, are the most concerned—had objected to such a conference, and does not that have something to do with Mr. Gordon Walker's own statement that one of the purposes of the conference was to give a chance to those taking part to discuss outside the conference proper bigger matters, such as Vietnam and Laos?

Mr. Stewart

The report contains a great deal of detailed information which could not have been obtained through the ordinary channels. There was also the importance of explaining fully Her Majesty's Government's attitude on this matter to the Governments concerned. The practice of sending special emissaries is one which has been adopted in the past, and I think that the circumstances on this occasion justified it. It is true that we are still awaiting a final decision of the Government of Cambodia on this matter and I am awaiting a reply from the Soviet Government to our agreement with them that a conference of this kind should be held.

I do not take the view, however, that the statement to which the right hon. Gentleman referred prejudiced that conference. This possibility had been widely canvassed in the Press quite early in the proceedings, but we have made it clear throughout to the Cambodian Government that a conference on that subject would be on that subject alone. It is true that we knew quite early that Hanoi and Peking had refused to receive Mr. Gordon Walker, but I think that it would have been wrong for us to have assumed for certain that that refusal was final.

The view we have always taken—I see that it does not commend itself to right hon. and hon. Members opposite, but it is still the right one—is that we ought, against all difficulties, to put it beyond doubt that it is not our side that is refusing negotiations. A Government who want to make that clear must sometimes expose themselves to refusals, but that is a risk which has to be taken if they want to get a peaceful settlement.

Mr. Maudling

Can I press the Foreign Secretary on the first and, I think, the most important point? He said that Mr. Gordon Walker was able to obtain a lot of detailed information that our ambassadors could not obtain. How can this possibly be true?

Mr. Stewart

Because the Government cannot constantly be summoning ambassadors back here. It is a question, not merely of messages, but of personal con- versations, and again I wanted to get a comprehensive review of the attitudes of a whole group of Governments. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the sending of emissaries like this has been done before and these circumstances seemed to me to justify it.

Mr. A. Henderson

I welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement about the possible conference on Cambodia. Would not he agree that, if there is to be a negotiated settlement of the Vietnam problem, sooner or later there will have to be direct talks between the political leaders of Vietcong and the South Vietnam Government? Would he bear in mind the possibility of encouraging such talks, with a view to arranging a ceasefire as a preliminary to a full-scale political conference?

Mr. Stewart

That would involve us in what are the internal affairs of South Vietnam. It seems to me that that is a matter which must arise after there has been international discussion. At present, the situation is that the United States Government are prepared to enter into conference without conditions and that we, for our part, would be prepared, if there were willingness on the other side, to co-operate with our Soviet cochairman in having a conference directly on the Vietnam question.

It is on these matters that at present we get the answer "No"; but, because it is so important, in the end, to get the answer "Yes", it is right to pursue many different channels, of which Mr. Gordon Walker's visit was one, until, in the end, we get the right answer.

Mr. Grimond

As the Foreign Secretary has told us that there is no agreement about a conference on Cambodia, may I ask him whether he proposes any other initiative in that area? Secondly, may I ask him whether he agrees that the situation is altered, in that while, a month or two ago, it was possible to argue that the United States had not made clear their objectives in the area, they have now made a perfectly clear offer of their willingness to negotiate at any time, without strings attached?

The absolute absence of any response to this offer, combined with the refusal of China and North Vietnam to see Mr. Gordon Walker, must cause the gravest concern to all those who want to see a final solution in this area and must cast grave doubts on the good will or good sense of North Vietnam and China.

Mr. Stewart

I would agree with the right hon. Gentleman's assessment of the situation that respect. I have now to consider what useful steps we could again take. There are quite a number of possibilities still open. There is still our suggestion for discussions on Laos, for example, on which we are still waiting for a Russian reply. It may be possible to try to get further approaches to them. I hope that I may be able to say something about that a little later.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

May I raise with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary the policy of intensified bombing in North and South Vietnam and ask him if it is proving efficacious for the purpose for which it was undertaken? Has he noted the statement of Mr. McNamara that, after three months of this policy, the Vietcong guerrillas have been increased by 20 per cent. or 40 per cent., that infiltration from North Vietnam has been increased, and that the Chinese have supplied new and modern arms? Is it not clear that further fighting cannot help towards a settlement and that it is urgently necessary to have a proposal for unconditional discussions, together with a cessation of hostilities?

Mr. Stewart

My right hon. Friend will remember that there has already been a proposal from the United States Government for unconditional discussions. That, at any rate, is in the field. I took the importance of that to mean that the United States Government were prepared to enter into those discussions whether or not there was a cease-fire; but, if a cessation of hostilities can also be arranged, so much the better. The United States Government have also made it clear that the moment there is an assured cessation of the action taken by North Vietnam their own action against that country will stop.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Although everybody shares the anxieties expressed by the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker), is it not a fact that the S.E.A.T.O. Council, whose countries know a great deal about this and are affected by it, and the N.A.T.O. Council, have considered this matter and that both Councils thought that there was no alternative to the American action and approved the American offer of unconditional talks?

Mr. Stewart

There is very widespread approval of the offer of unconditional talks. There is also very widespread feeling throughout the world that it would be quite wrong and dangerous for the United States Government to abandon the assistance they are now giving to South Vietnam. The American Government have made it clear that the military measures they are taking will be measured according to the situation they meet.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Is not one of my right hon. Friend's difficulties in collecting the necessary information that what he agrees to be the normal channels, namely, our diplomatic representatives in the countries concerned, are available to him in South Vietnam but are not available, and never have been available, to him in North Vietnam? Is not this at least part of the explanation, and would it not be accepted by most reasonable people that it is not an unreasonable attitude if a country refuses to receive the representative of the Foreign Secretary of a country which refuses to recognise the country or Government concerned?

Can my hon. Friend explain on what grounds it is possible to justify the anomaly of recognising, apparently de jure, the Government of South Vietnam and not recognising the Government of North Vietman at all? Can this possibly be right, and is it in any way useful?

Mr. Stewart

This carries us rather further from the content of my statement, I think. These are matters that could usefully be considered if we could once get the parties concerned to a conference table and get a negotiated settlement. But it is—the House must be in no doubt about this—at present the attitudes of the Governments of China and North Vietnam that prevent us getting there.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must make progress with other business.